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Classical Notes

I won't stand for it

Posted at 8:28 AM on June 14, 2007 by Don Lee

In New Music Box, Frank Oteri raises a question that's come up before in these pages: Why do (some) audiences seem so eager to give standing ovations? Based on my experience living for awhile on the East Coast, I had the sense that Minnesotans are more prone to the practice than others might be. But the exchange in New Music Box suggests audiences all over the world love to leap to their feet. And the phenomenon seems to be nothing new.

Still, it's interesting to talk about.

I'm not sure a performance must be, as Oteri implies, a "life-changing event" in order to merit a standing ovation but most of us would agree it should be exceptional. By definition, most performances are not exceptional.

So why do audiences give standing ovations to less-than-exceptional performances? To the reasons supplied by Oteri's readers, I would add a list of my own cynical explanations:

1. They want the concert to bear the marker of an exceptional event--one that justifies both their investment and a bit of boasting at tomorrow's dinner party.
2. By standing—and especially by being the first to stand—they show the performers and the rest of the audience that they "get it."
3. They’re accounting for standing ovation inflation. To stay seated might say "C" to the musicians when the intended rating is really "B+."
4. To stay seated while most others stand would be embarrassing or seem churlish.

I'm not a total cynic, though.

Because tastes and perspectives differ, any standing ovation will include listeners who genuinely believe the performance was exceptional. Those who feel that way should stand and stand unabashedly, but the rest of us needn't feel compelled to join them.