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NYO-USA: On the Intricacies of Applause

Nina Morales, a violinist from Spring Hill, Florida, noticed some differences between audiences in the United States and Russia. Read more about her experience performing in Moscow.

After saying goodbye to Washington D.C., the last bit of American soil for the rest of the tour, and going on a flight that seemed to span a few consecutive days, NYO arrived in Moscow. This was our first concert overseas, away from the home crowd that was often comprised of enthusiastic, supportive parents. This concert would be the acid test, I thought, to determine if our orchestra was worthy. Russians, I was told, take their classical music seriously.

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Now, I am unfamiliar with the general mood of Russian audiences, having never traveled to this country before but they seemed eager to give NYO a chance. The concert was sold out, without an empty seat in the Moscow Conservatory Hall. Decorated with the portraits of famous composers, the booming hall also didn’t have air conditioning, so playing or sitting in such an energized room was a commitment in itself.

We began with Shepherd’s Magiya, which was received with polite applause, though a bit more subdued than the previous concerts. Perhaps this was a combination of unfamiliarity with the piece and the politeness of the audience itself, but it is difficult to draw any conclusions, having had no prior Russian concert experiences.

Next came the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Joshua Bell. This is a well-loved, virtuosic staple in the violin repertoire and probably familiar to everyone in attendance. I wondered how it would be received - this glorious piece of music written by a composer whose statue greets guests at the entrance of the conservatory and whose giant portrait gazes serenely inside the hall itself.

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The first movement of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, with its long length and high voltage, conclusive ending, always seems to elicit enthusiastic applause from the audience - despite the concerto being far from over. Would this audience clap between movements, I wondered, or would they mistake the first movement for the end of the piece (which happens so often, it’s become customary)?

The first movement ended and I waited. Silence. The audience knew. THEY KNEW NOT TO CLAP and for once, the lack of applause pleased me. Then, after about 10 seconds, some noises of appreciation trickled in, and some applause came from the audience. This response was even better to me somehow – they were aware that the piece wasn’t over, but still wanted to recognize Joshua Bell’s well-executed performance of the gigantic first movement. It showed me this Russian audience was conscious of concert etiquette - and appreciative! I loved it.

Then, when we really did finish the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto - to the racing, roaring end of the rapid third movement - the applause came. Not as bombastic as the two concerts in America, which elicited immediate cheers and screaming, but the strongest applause of the concert yet, appreciative and polite, punctuated by some “Bravo’s” from more verbal members of the audience. Slowly some people stood up, and what I didn’t expect was the clapping to grow, and then fall into rhythm, the audience keeping a beat of their own. Joshua Bell went on and off the stage countless times, and the longevity of the applause led us to play the encore - Tchaikovsky’s Melodie.

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Joshua Bell pointed to the aforementioned portrait of Tchaikovsky before we played the encore, a gesture that seemed to fit the moment, a salute to rich Russian culture. But what I didn’t expect was the clapping to continue so long even after our encore – enough to convince Joshua Bell to come out with a SECOND encore, a point which we had never reached yet, and didn’t know existed until tonight. Cheerfully playing Vieuxtemps’s "Yankee Doodle" Variations, Joshua Bell ended the first half on something distinctly American, parallel to our encore for the second half of the program.

After intermission came Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10, another piece by a great Russian composer during a turbulent time period. Having spent a day in Russia, this piece gained another dimension in my mind, as I pondered over the people I had observed and the juxtaposition of old and new at every corner of the city. Soaking in the atmosphere changed my perspective - and my performance in an unidentifiable way.

We finished the massive first movement of the piece - a remarkable work by itself that seems to portray the complexity of a journey of many years, filled with a range of ebbing and flowing emotions. It ends with a slow fade into silence with a lone piccolo solo, not with a bang like the first movement of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. And yet, people clapped. This was so unexpected to me – there’s no sort of fake ending or rousing finale to incite the audience into applause, just fragility and uncertainty that melts into silence. This touched me the most out of all the applause we received tonight - the audience had gone with us on the long journey through the first movement and applauded because it was moving. They clapped between movements, and once again, it didn’t bother me. I felt like they had really understood and appreciated our music by giving us recognition at the end of the first movement - a connection, shared by 120 members of the orchestra and the hundreds of people in the audience, that somehow seemed intimate.

We finished the symphony and encore to many cheers and a standing ovation, which seemed easier to draw from the crowd as the mood brightened with our lighthearted, distinctly American encore of Porgy and Bess.We stood up and down as Maestro Gergiev was forced to come back to the stage countless times to receive the admiration of the crowd. Whatever applause we received, it seemed to be on the very enthusiastic side of a typical Russian audience.

In hindsight, I noticed another thing about the audience in Moscow – they don’t fidget, or cough, or get up from their seats mid-movement, or leave their cell phones on, bring in crying children, unwrap cellophane-covered candy, or cause any of those typical distractions that you’ve been trained to ignore while playing in classical music concerts. I don’t know how many more anecdotes I can add to show how striking the level of awareness, consideration, and attentiveness there was from the audience at the concert.

The US ambassador to Russia, Mr. Michael McFaul, addressed NYO at dinner, thanked us for our performance, which he believed strengthened relationships with Russia by transcending political issues through music. I think that we did unconsciously try to convey a few things tonight, like paying homage to great Russian composers, fostering international friendships between the shared American and Russian culture that is balanced so well on our program and of course, a sense of gratitude for listening to our music. In response, I think we received some sort of thanks back – or whatever sort of approving emotion one may construe from a nod of the head or a slight smile from a previously taciturn audience member.

In comparison, it was the gentlest response to our playing out of all of the concerts on tour, but by far, the most gratifying for me. Through our music, I think they might have understood our message, and I, theirs - all without having to speak a single word of Russian.

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