Picture this: signs throughout NJPAC’s Prudential Hall that read: Experience great music! (Applaud whenever you like). As you settle into your seat, you hear a preconcert announcement by management that concludes like this: “Just a reminder, ladies and gentlemen, that you may applaud whenever you feel moved to do so, and nobody here will chastise you.”
These were just two ideas posited to Maestro Jacques Lacombe, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO)’s music director, who spoke today by telephone to Examiner.com about his hectic travel itinerary, the Winter Festival presently in full swing at NJSO, and his ideal of the concert audience becoming an important part of the performance.
NJSO concerts frequently begin with enlightening opening comments by an orchestra member, giving specific listening points or facts about the composition’s performance history. Imagine hearing the musician conclude by saying, “We’re not seeking applause, ladies and gentlemen. We know that you, our loyal audience, are generous with enthusiastic ovations. But times are changing, and New Jersey Symphony Orchestra is keeping up with them. We want you to feel welcome to express your appreciation at any moment during the performance, not just at points established by silly post-World War II traditions.”
Maestro Lacombe’s reaction? “You have to be careful not to be too directive. We don’t try to provoke that response [applause], but we don’t want to discourage it either. The orchestra members and I want to feel the same energy with the audience, who become a really important part of our performance.”
So when is the proper time to applaud? “If it feels right, you should just do it. Whenever applause arises organically at the same moment, it’s the proper time, the right moment, the right energy.”
Are there ever times when performers prefer not to hear applause until the end of an entire piece? Concerning Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, the maestro said, “it’s almost like a religious experience. I would really like to keep the tension going until the end” without interruption by applause. Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, with its wispy ethereal closing Adagio, is another example. “Sometimes the pause, the rest, the silence between movements is part of the music.”
Since the maestro occasionally speaks to the audience before performing a piece that may be unknown to most, perhaps he could say something like this: “During the closing Adagio [of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9], try to be as absolutely still as possible and see how that affects your experience of this very soul-stirring music.”
A soloist performing a concerto may be amenable to applause between movements or even during movements—after a particularly thrilling cadenza—more so than, say, a vocal soloist performing Richard Strauss’ Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs) would warm to applause between lieder. “Those songs comprise a collective farewell to life,” said Maestro Lacombe. “They are like having an out-of-body experience. Applause before the final lied would be like a jolt as if from the next room.” Tricky business, this.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Jacques Lacombe years ago at l’Opéra national de Lorraine, en Nancy, France, conducted a run of performances of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, an opera constructed of arias, duets, concerted numbers, stirring choruses, and even ballet sequences. “Obviously the composer intended that the audience would applaud at the end of each ‘number’,” says Maestro Lacombe. On closing night, the Friends of the Opéra Club always attended, “and at the final performance no one in the audience was practically allowed to breathe. We gave a very flat performance, or so it felt.”
He continues, “A good friend of mine came by, and I told him, ‘You know the audience wasn’t very talented tonight’.” He explained that “a dialogue has to ensue between the audience and the performers, both onstage and in the orchestra pit. When performers onstage don’t get that reaction from the audience, they have to push and work harder,” which affects the energy among all the performers.
The busy maestro has been both sides of the Atlantic and both sides of the United States border with Canada, his homeland, various times during the past two months. Yesterday he finished a run of six performances of Georges Bizet’s Carmen with Deutsche Oper Berlin.
Back home Stateside, he helms NJSO for programs centred on the Winter Festival’s theme, “Air and the Atmosphere”—how that earthly element becomes music. (Previous elemental themes were fire and water.) The Festival’s first concert was performed last Friday night and began with a work unfamiliar to the Orchestra. Jacques Lacombe told Examiner.com what drew him to Michael Tippett’s Symphony No. 4, “Birth to Death.”
I had never heard this work until attending a concert performance of it nearly 12 years ago with a friend who was undergoing chemotherapy. The work had a powerful impact on us both, especially the ending, which is a musical illustration of a human drawing its final breath. My friend’s life-threatening, potentially parallel experience suddenly became quite poignant. We finished the performance moved to tears. Ever since, I began looking for an appropriate time to work this unusual piece, which is almost a concerto for orchestra, into a concert program.
NJSO has never played anything by Tippett before, yet their conductor is impressed by the way they tackled this challenging work structured as a three-movement symphony with coda. And his friend? Fully recovered, happily, and doing quite well.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral,” figures prominently in performance throughout two weeks of concerts this month. Join us in tomorrow’s conclusion to this interview, when Maestro Lacombe reveals what he especially likes about Beethoven’s works. You’ll also read surprising details about the occasion of his debut with Metropolitan Opera in Lincoln Center and highlights from his future performing schedule.
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Newark Performing Arts column
Finally, leave a polite comment below about your attendance at performances or your plans to attend. Or let us know where you stand on the No-Applause Rule.