Rules for not clapping at a piano recital

Jane Sohn and Jason Bae, Steinway Showcase: Baycourt Centennial Theatre, Sunday 26 February 2012

Classical concerts are scary things and there is a lot of protocol around what you’re supposed to do. The best rule is to do nothing. Don’t talk, don’t cough, for god’s sake don’t unwrap a lozenge and most of all don’t clap. If you try any of these, particularly clapping, you’ll get scolded. Jason Bae was poised between the second and third movements of a Prokofiev sonata when some ignoramus plebs started clapping. He quickly flicked his hand out to shush them.

Classical music is like golf, you need hush. If the piece being performed is a sonata then it’s going to come in three movements. Even if you feel like you should be applauding when the first movement ends, don’t. You’re supposed to wait until the very end of the entire composition. Remember, that’s three movements, unless it’s not. Some sonatas have four movements, or one, or, if it’s Mozart, about a million. So how would you know? It’s not fair. Jason didn’t really mind about the premature clapulation, he was good natured about it. The clappers probably felt a bit silly and the rest of the audience enjoyed a mixture of smugness and relief that they hadn’t fallen into the same trap. Applause aborted, polite titter and the piano recital was able to conclude with the thunderous final movement of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7.

Here’s the thing: Jason’s piano playing was awesome. Of course everyone felt like clapping. In fact, let’s bust out of our classical straight jackets right now and admit that what he brought to that stage was totally fucking cool. Hell, there were moments I felt like leaping up and whooping. If it were a rock concert we’d be cheering on the guitar solo. This guy rocking the Steinway was extraordinary. But there is so much concentration, so much going on, and so much entrenched protocol around the classical concert that you Just Got To Keep Quiet. It’s what you do.

And to be fair, it’s the fairest thing for the performer. You don’t wolf whistle at the guy who’s about to swing his golf club. What I heard yesterday in the Baycourt theatre was transcendant. It brought me to the edge of tears at times. Jason Bae, just a young pianist, took us all on a journey that few people get to experience. How do I know few experience this sort of thing? Because I was there, my wife was there and a bunch of old people were there. No disrespect.

Also, I had free tickets. That helped.

But, man. I’d pay to see that again. From the moment Jason Bae sat at the piano we knew we were in the confident hands of a rising master. He rolled out a Beethoven sonata and then a Liszt so-called Ballade. I’m not going to pretend I know what a Ballade is, I’ve never played one myself. It sounds nice. This wasn’t nice, it was magnificent.

I have a new appreciation for Liszt, who is a virtuoso composer. In the first half of the recital Jane Sohn played a Liszt sonata, one that was inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. The Liszt is a challenging, show boaty piece of music. I decided to track it down and learn it; it’ll probably take me about 10 years, I reckon. Jane Sohn is a very proficient pianist who, like Jason Bae, is studying at the University of Auckland’s School of Music. She played well and I loved hearing the Liszt. And yet the difference between her demeanour and Jason Bae’s demeanour at the piano was tangible. Jason arrived after the interval and immediatedly we knew we were at the next level.

I had brought to Jane Sohn’s performance all of my own personal angst from childhood recitals and piano competitions: the nerves, the close calls. The stuff that prevents you from losing yourself in the music. Jason eliminated all of that with his first few notes. I forgot all my nerves and was immediately absorbed by the journey. He owned that piano, which is a statement that does no justice at all to the experience of listening to – of seeing – his performance. He invested himself into the dynamic range of the Steinway and blew the strings off it. This was piano artistry in all its hushed theatre glory. Suddenly, nothing else mattered. My wife, who likes action films, cried. Turns out there’s a reason that you are quiet at a classical concert.

Jane Sohn

Beethoven Piano Sonata Op.101

Liszt Apres une Lecture de Dane: Fantasia quasi Sonata

Jason Bae

Beethoven Piano Sonata Op 10 No 2

Liszt Ballade No 2

Prokofiev Sonata No 7