the big o

do standing ovations mean anything anymore?
(and did they ever mean anything to begin with?)

i do not particularly enjoy attending concerts given by major orchestras. it has to be music that i like, am interested in hearing (which happens much less) or a date of some kind. with that being said, i obviously don’t go as often as i used to. now there are lots of reasons as to why i don’t enjoy these concerts that could, and will, be saved for many other posts. this post is about my fascination with the oddest of habits — the standing ovation.

according to good ole’ wikipedia, the ovation originated in ancient Rome to commemorate those who were not worthy enough for a triumph. the word itself comes from the Latin ovo, or “[i] rejoice”. now just when the standing ovation crept into the habit-laden world of classical music is beyond me but the two seem inseparable. i would like to think that somewhere in that history, the standing ovation was rare and only used for the most moving of performances. given the history of public performance, that’s a pretty safe claim to make (also allowing that some cultures probably never gave standing ovations and were just as likely to throw tomatoes, leave, or start a riot). so why do we give standing ovations now?

i was at a concert recently that was okay, and as soon as it was finished, an older man in front of me leapt to his feet, clapping wildly. the rest of the audience soon followed. now if that gentleman was so moved by the performance then far be it from me to begrudge him his praise. but what ended up happening was that i looked like the biggest douche ever when i was the only one left seated. now, i know what it’s like to be on the other side of that, to receive standing ovations when they were wholly undeserved (and usually the performer has a good barometer as to whether or not a concert was a complete and utter failure) and to receive them after really giving something that you as the performer think was transmitted. i hate when people just stand for me. like, please. i don’t need your pity party and i don’t need to be placated. if i think i just gave the performance of my life and you don’t feel the same way, i still will.

i have only given three standing ovations in my life that i can recall. the most profound were the two i gave in one concert. let me preface this by saying that when i was in NYC as an adult, i hated the new york phil. this was mainly directed towards Lorin Maazel but it extended to the orchestra at times (this hatred has now diminished significantly with the beginning of Alan Gilbert’s tenure but looked dire after a dreadful performance of Britten’s War Requiem this summer). however, i have to give credit where credit is due. the season closer in 2007 consisted of Strauss songs, performed by Deborah Voigt, and Mahler’s 7th symphony. first off, a concert of Mahler and Strauss will do some serious things to me, let’s be clear. but after Voigt finished her set and returned to the stage to sing an encore of “Zueignung”, there were tears in my eyes something powerful. i rose to my feet and clapped wildly but not consciously. it was an out of body sort of experience, as if i had no control of my physical being. the same could be said of the end of the Mahler. there i was, crying, probably shaking a little bit over how much this piece had moved me. i had been so transported that it took me hours to get back to 66th street.

i will never forget that moment and i don’t know when i’ll have one like it again. in a way, i’m glad about that. i don’t know what life would be like if i was moved to tears by every piece and every performance. life doesn’t work that way and neither should music. so i will stay in my seat, it suits me just fine. if you want to stand up, stand up. if you want to cheer, then cheer. but don’t ever feel like you have to be a sheep, a slave to habit and tradition. though i will say, if i’m in an audience where they’re throwing tomatoes, i’ll probably join in.

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2 thoughts on “the big o

  1. jmgerraughty says:

    My guess as to why people give so many standing ovations is one of two reasons:

    1. People have seen audiences give standing ovations when classical music concerts are portrayed in the media, and as a result they feel like this is normal behavior. They must figure they’d better get with the standing to keep from looking like they don’t know what they’re doing at a classical music concert.

    2. People want to experience the giving of a standing ovation as part of the classical performance. They not only want to know what it feels like to go to a classical concert, but they want to know what it feels like to be moved to their feet afterward. They may want this so bad that they’ll stand for anything, convincing themselves that what they heard was the best they’ve ever heard, because they WANTED it to be so badly.

    Those are both pretty cynical reasons, though, and I hope I’m wrong. I hope people give lots of ovations because they genuinely enjoyed the show!

    • Imani says:

      though those reasons my seem cynical, i believe they’re grounded in a bit of truth. who doesn’t want to be a part of the event they’re experiencing? when in rome…

      unfortunately, it’s our fault as musicians for a) encouraging that behavior and b) not teaching anything else. maybe it’s our egos, i don’t know but we never lay any sort of guidelines (not they’re necessarily needs to be) and expect people just to know, to learn by emersion.

      i want people to be moved if it was deserved and be caught up in the experience but i want their reactions to be true to their own feelings and not like they feel like they have to thank US for anything. it’s an even trade, i think. i am so gratified when people come to hear me perform and in turn i want to give them something i can be proud of and they can connect with. methinks we have it all backwards. 🙂

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