Arts & Events

The Standing Ovation: When is It Right?

By Richard Reynolds
Tuesday November 01, 2011 - 09:25:00 PM

We’ve all been there.

The concert ends, the applause begins. A well-dressed woman up front (the chair of the board?) stands up. The other board members see her standing, and they stand up too.

Other audience members see people in front standing up, and they begin to stand as well. The conductor or soloist bows to the audience and exits stage right. By the time she returns, most of the audience is standing.

This is all wrong.

It misses the point.

A standing-ovation performance is one in which you are so excited at the end that the only possible action is to leap to your feet. If you have to think about it, forget it. The performance doesn’t deserve a standing ovation.

Bay Area audiences are way too ready to rise to their feet at the end of a performance. I have, on occasion, given in to the crowd and joined in when everyone around me has risen to his or her feet, but I do so grudgingly, and if I saw nothing exceptional about the performance, I will remain seated.

Last Thursday, when Johannes Moser performed the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 with the Berkeley Symphony, I didn’t have to think about it. Like most of the audience, I jumped to my feet before the last hair on his bow had snapped. Moser grabbed that concerto by the throat at the very beginning and never let go until he was finished.  

It was a tour de force. I suppose one could take issue with the way he nearly threw his bow into the air when completing a particularly energetic phrase, but it never felt like theatrics. He was immersed in the concerto throughout. 

And then what does he do? He puts aside all that drive and manic energy and delivers a rich, soulful rendition of the Sarabande from the First Bach Cello Suite—another standing-ovation performance, albeit of a completely different order. (There are occasions when a standing ovation is deserved not because the performance has ended with an exciting flourish, but because it was quietly soulful and emotionally rewarding throughout.) 

The performance that defined a standing-ovation performance for me took place some time in the sixties at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City. The concert featured Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha. In the first half, they played a raga that lasted about an hour. A few people, apparently not having been ready for the length, didn’t come back for the second half. 

The raga they played in the second half must have lasted two hours, but it was engrossing from beginning to end, when Shankar and Rakha began challenging each other. Shankar would play a fast, complex pattern on the sitar. Rakha would pick up on that, reproduce the rhythm on the tabla, then give it a twist. 

Shankar would answer and raise Rakha $100, while introducing another nuance. This went on for maybe twenty minutes, the repeated patterns becoming shorter and shorter, until the rapid-fire back-and-forth was a blur. 

I leapt about four feet in the air when they finished. There was no choice—no way I could have remained seated. 

Other standing ovation performances that come to mind include Philharmonia Baroque’s rendition of Beethoven’s Ninth at First Congregational Church in Berkeley in April of 2006. It was the fourth movement that really grabbed me, when the chorus came in and made more sound than the orchestra. I had never heard it that way before, and it was revelatory. 

It’s always exciting in the fourth movement, when the chorus stands up and adds its voice to the production. But this was different, and all the more worth waiting for. This, combined with Nicholas McGegan’s brisk tempo, swept the performance to a rousing conclusion that brought me to my feet. 

Another memorable performance that comes to mind was Annie Sophie-Mutter playing Sophia Gubaidulina’s violin concerto, In tempus praesens, with the San Francisco Symphony in 2009. I came into Davies Hall with little idea what awaited me. The concerto proved to be a war between orchestra and soloist, between darkness and light. It’s a tremendously challenging violin part that pushes the limits of instrument and performer throughout, giving the soloist nary a moment’s rest. Only in the end does the violin triumph. And what a triumph it is—a triumph that called for, and received, a rousing standing ovation. 

And then there was blues guitarist Taj Majal at the Great American Music Hall some time in the seventies. I was so caught up in what he was doing that I would have licked his shoes for one more encore. (He played four or five, and I remained standing through all of them.) 

So next time you see a couple of people in the front of the hall slowly stand, followed by a slow crescendo of others, stop and think about it. And realize that if you have to think about it, it probably isn’t a performance deserving of a standing ovation. Save this special tribute for the rare occasions that demand one. 

Richard Reynolds is a French horn player and longtime member of the Berkeley Symphony, Fremont Symphony, and the Lamplighters Orchestra. He spent more than thirty years at Mother Jones magazine, mainly as communications director, before retiring last year. He also retired from the Berkeley Symphony at the beginning of the current season. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Salon, Saveur, Gastronomica, the San Francisco Symphony program book, and elsewhere.