For a 21st-century Proms, we must let the people clap when they want | Chi-chi Nwanoku

Fusty, dusty old rules about when to applaud need to be ditched if we’re ever to bring new audiences into classical music

It’s the World Cup final. The ball has just smashed into the back of the net. But as some in the crowd rise to cheer, the referee orders them to be silent. The correct time to cheer is at the end of the match, he says. The rest of the crowd tut-tut at the transgressors, who clearly haven’t learned the correct way to behave. Sound ridiculous? Well, welcome to the world of classical music.

The Proms are back, and almost immediately there’s a row about when the audience can and cannot applaud. It was sparked by a performance of Gustav Holst’s The Planets, when part of the Royal Albert Hall audience showed its appreciation after the Neptune, Mercury and Jupiter movements. A contributor to the blog Slipped Disc fumed that this was “mindless ... It breaks the continuity (and the concentration of the performers), is bad manners and inconsiderate to other listeners”.

I despair when anyone is reprimanded for showing their spontaneous response at the end of a movement, particularly a heady one that ends on a high. There is an inevitable buildup of excitement and tension throughout movements – and the gaps between them are the obvious places for an audience to react. Believe it or not, it’s actually thrilling for the performers, too, and gives all of us a moment to gather ourselves again before the performance continues. It does not take anything away from the response at the end of the entire piece.

As a musician, it is my job to help all concertgoers, be they seasoned or first-timers, to feel as comfortable and welcome as possible, and not straitjacketed and in danger of being ridiculed or scolded for showing their appreciation at the most obvious moment to them. It is important because I too need to feel relaxed on stage in order to give of my best.

Two years ago, a BBC podcast on the Proms found overwhelming opposition to clapping between movements. This snootiness is probably the main reason why many of my family and close friends simply stopped coming to concerts: they were made to feel alienated, or that they had committed a cardinal sin by spontaneously and genuinely bursting into applause at the end of a passage they loved.

So many senior figures in classical music say they want to attract more people from diverse backgrounds. Yet the attitude that concertgoers must be educated to behave in a traditional manner is getting in the way. In fact, it’s actually ignorant to suggest pin-drop silence between movements is “traditional”: revered composers such as Mozart, Brahms and Tchaikovsky dined out on the amount of cheering and clapping they could elicit between movements.

I’ve been part of the movement to widen audiences for classical music, and in 2015 I set up Chineke!, Europe’s first orchestra to have black and minority-ethnic musicians in the majority.

Earlier this year, Chineke! was invited to perform at the World Opera Forum at the Teatro Real in Madrid. The audience was full of people steeped in the classical tradition. We opened with Errollyn Wallen’s Concerto Grosso, which was met by explosive and spontaneous clapping and cheering after the first movement. Every single face, on and off the stage, had a smile on it. Not a grimace or a “Shhh!” in the house.

Similarly, during concerts at St George’s Bristol – where the Chineke! Orchestra has a residency, and where we attract one of our most diverse audiences – the applause between each movement makes for some of the most thrilling performances I have ever experienced.

Of course I’m against unnecessary noise – chat, eating, mobile phone conversations, etc – when it occurs during a movement, because it’s distracting and shows a lack of consideration to those who are there to hear the music, and to those playing it. But at a time when the classical music industry is desperately trying to develop its audience and bring the concert-going experience out of the fusty, dusty tails-and-frock-coat era and into the 21st century, I believe we are not helping matters by trying to stifle and dictate natural human responses.

Chineke!’s purpose is to bring about greater diversity and inclusion in classical music by showcasing players and music that are currently underrepresented. This will inevitably include more diverse forms of appreciation, and may well serve to “educate” the traditionalists.

It’s absolutely fantastic to be on the receiving end of rapturous and spontaneous applause, wherever it happens, and woefully depressing to hear half-hearted, polite clapping because the “educated” audience knows a piece has come to the end, regardless of whether they enjoyed it or not. Give me between-movement clapping any day. After all, people would not clap if they did not like what they saw and heard.


Chi-chi Nwanoku

The GuardianTramp

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