The orchestra roars and the pianist's hands are a blur: thunderous octaves in one hand against single notes in the other, then a fusillade of double octaves that brings the first movement to a majestic conclusion.
Many in the audience begin to applaud; others, who consider themselves more knowledgeable, don't -- and they look either embarrassed for or scornfully at those who do. The applause peters out. Soloist and conductor confer for a moment, the orchestra tunes and the piece starts up again with the second movement.
This is almost certainly what we can expect Friday night in Meyerhoff Hall when pianist Terrence Wilson, conductor Daniel Hege and the Baltimore Symphony conclude the first movement of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto. It's a scenario that recurs regularly in performances of virtuosic, crowd-pleasing works such as the Tchaikovsky. And it presents a classic dilemma: What is one to do when the music says "please applaud" and modern concert etiquette says "please wait"?
"Almost any time the audience wants to applaud, that's fine with me," says pianist Horacio Gutierrez, who will give a solo recital next Sunday at Goucher College and who is a Tchaikovsky Concerto veteran. Gutierrez remembers few times outside music centers such as New York when an audience did not applaud the concerto's first movement.
"[Applause] never bothers me unless it interrupts the music," he says.
Only once did an audience repeatedly interrupt Gutierrez. "It was a Fourth of July spectacular at the Hollywood Bowl in 1977, and I was playing the Tchaikovsky with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta," he says. "This was an audience that was there for the fireworks, and every time I played a brilliant passage or the music came to a temporary pause, thousands of people began to applaud. Zubin began to conduct like this "
Gutierrez waves his right hand, leans back, turns his head with the sort of frown an outraged traffic cop might wear and holds his left hand up as if to scream, "Halt!"
Sometimes audiences applaud because they don't know they're not supposed to but assume that they are -- such as when they applaud every movement in a work. At other times, applause is prompted by the nature of the music -- such as that which concludes the Tchaikovsky's first movement or the treacherous, hair-raising leaps that conclude the second movement of Schumann's C-Major Fantasy.
Generally speaking, the more knowledgeable an audience is, the less applause between movements. But that has not always been the case. Broadcast recordings of the New York Philharmonic show that Carnegie Hall audiences were applauding after the first movement in pieces such as the Tchaikovsky Concerto as recently as the early 1950s. Concert programs for solo recitals at that time began to request that audiences refrain from applause between numbers in a group of Chopin mazurkas or Schubert songs.
What put the final kibosh on applause between movements at that time was the introduction of the long-playing record. The LP made it possible to hear relatively long works such as a symphony by Mozart, Haydn or Beethoven without a break. And because LPs were so much cheaper and more convenient than the smaller 78s, they enjoyed a much larger market than the older medium. For the first time in history, listeners were getting most of their musical experiences in the privacy of their own homes rather than in concert halls. The approximately three-second pause between movements on the LP does not offer enough time to applaud. And so far as one can tell, most people are not inclined to clap their hands in either their own living rooms or, for that matter, those of others.
Applause before the end of a piece had its heyday in the 18th century and early in the 19th, before the advent of Romanticism established the organic -- almost sacred -- unity of musical works. There were even occasions when applause was acceptable while music was still being played. In a letter to his father, Mozart bragged that the Parisians applauded at places in his D Major Symphony that he had put into the music expressly to earn such cheers. And C.P.E. Bach complained about bravura keyboard players who pouted after only a few measures of a piece because "they could not bear to be so long without the bravos."
In that period, audiences did not hesitate to express their pleasure during the pauses between movements. At Haydn's London concerts, the movements that received the most applause were actually encored. The second movement of the "Clock" Symphony was a particular favorite as was -- a generation later -- the same movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. A newspaper account in 1816 reported an occasion when the Seventh's Allegretto movement was not encored, explaining that the "dense crowding of the audience hindered the free use of their hands [for applause]."