A Voice in the Wasteland: “Stop With the Standing Ovations!

By Joel Hess


What is worth a standing ovation? What do you require to rise from your seat and smack your palms? Do you give your ovations easily? Or have you only jumped up and applauded because you couldn’t see over the guy in front of you who was doing the same?

Anton Bruckner tore his shirt in joy when he first heard Wagner’s Tannhauser. The chief priests tore their robes in disgust when Jesus said He was the Son of Man.  A friend of my tore out a theater seat after he heard the dead milkmen in Kalamazoo – that might have been over the top.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a performance of the Grand Rapids Symphony (Michigan).  I try to go yearly – not for some sad attempt to get learned right quick, but because my mother sings in the chorus.  Ok, I enjoy much of the so called classical genre of music, and I am sure some of you just said to yourself, “he pretends to enjoy it.”

Wolfgang-amadeus-mozart_1I chose this performance because it was Mozart’s requiem. Everyone loves a good rest in peace finale and this is the mother of them all. Mozart is like the Beatles. Many people want to say they hate them because everyone likes them and it just seems like something can’t be both brilliant and popular. Also, let’s get this out of the way – you all secretly love Rocky Mountain High. Sorry hipsters.

The first two pieces were rip offs of Philip Glass and the star trek TV Series.  Yes, it is true; the classical genre has been exhausted.

Finally the Requiem.  It stands the test of time.  But I got bored because I am boring and  I have listened to that piece so many times I feel like a druggie who always needs a higher high.

After the last note drifted out of the room, the audience began to clap.  The clapping grew louder. The lead musicians bowed. The clapping continued. The conductor left.  The clapping continued.  The conductor returned and people rose from their seats still clapping and some people hoot and hollered; the standing O!  Flowers were brought out, more bowing.

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Wow! What a response. If you just flew in from Pluto you would think something awesome happened in that building. However, this is the same response to every concert!  It has become a memorized liturgy.

Of course classical art is dead as far as its ability to surprise or wow. That may be another reason why the routine standing ovations and flower giving.  The audience has become a part of re-enactment of a past performance (I think I just said something brilliant).

Maybe I have become cold and dull. Maybe the rest of the congregation was indeed swept away by the skill of the musicians and the magic of the composers. But I hate cheap standing ovations!

 Why did they give the players a standing ovation? I suggest that they were in fact clapping for themselves as if to say, “Hey we did it. We sat politely and looked interested for two hours.”

Since when is art polite!?


Overall, we have removed critical thinking from the judgment of art. Therefore everything deserves a standing ovation simply because it is art.  Who knows if it is good or not!  How dare anyone say something is bad or even mediocre?  Hey they tried! What have you done? So everything gets a standing ovation. Everyone is a winner.  Have some vegetable lasagna.

Brothers and sisters I plead with you like a mother to her daughter – do not give out your standing ovation so quickly!

There is only one great work of art that deserves a standing ovation no matter how many times it is performed and no matter how poorly it is spoken!  The reading of the words of the Word made flesh, our savior, Jesus Christ, in the divine service! You can even tear your shirt if you want.