I grew up going to concerts where there was a set protocol. I loved the protocol, and I still love it when I have the opportunity of experiencing it. I feel safe knowing that I can arrive early, pick up a program, read through the program notes, and enjoy the din of people around me doing the same. The actual location doesn't matter: whether the hall is large or small, American or not American, free to the public or expensive, new music or old, the protocol was always the same when I was growing up.
Through my whole childhood and much of my adulthood the concert would begin when the house lights went down and the stage lights went up. I would savor that moment of expectation between audience din and audience quiet that would be broken by applause for the musicians, and then the music. For me there is a separation of the secular and the sacred in these moments. It is the separation of the everyday world and the world of music.
I think of applause a collective way of "playing" back to the musicians. At the same time it serves as a marker between one piece and the next. The occasion between-movement clapping that happens from time to time is something I try best to ignore (and the clapper, I hope, tries best to forget).
I'm speaking in the present tense, because this kind of thing still happens once in a while. It is just happening less and less. Perhaps it is due to cell phones, but smart audiences know by now that they should turn their cell phone ringers off before the beginning of a concert. Signs or reminders in the printed program could accomplish the task of reminding people.
I went to a concert recently where the concert organizer came on stage (to the applause of the audience), introduced himself only by first name, told the audience about the series and how they could contribute to it financially, and how in times when other arts organizations are contracting, this one is expanding.
He asked audience members to turn off their cell phones (and there was a person in the audience who wasn't listening), and told them not to text during the concert. Then he asked the members of the audience to introduce themselves to the people on either side of them by first name. I was lucky. I already knew all my seat neighbors by first name, so I didn't need to participate. I heard people say things like "just like in church." Everybody was jolly. The concert organizer introduced the musicians by first name, and the concert finally began (after ten minutes of talking).
People clapped when the musicians entered. The musicians talked to the audience. Their rapport was fine: they were quite charming and entertaining, actually, but as an audience member I was there to listen to music, not to be entertained. They also addressed the audience (as did the concert organizer) as a collection of novices--people who they imagined had never been to a classical music concert before.
The audience, by the way, was not a collection of novices. I hope that the colloquial nature of this series doesn't insult other regular concert-goers and keep them from going to concerts in the future.
There were no program notes. I love having program notes to read before the concert and after the concert. Perhaps program notes would be considered too stuffy. People also clapped between every single movement of every single piece. I imagine the the non-novices in the audience were bothered by this.
The playing was fine, but the overall experience was far too colloquial for my fuddy-duddy tastes. What would have been a 70-minute program took two hours (there was a 15-minute intermission).
Call me a snob, but I prefer formality in my concerts, whether I am a member of the audience or a member of the performing ensemble.