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One Meaning of ‘Old Pro’

President Nixon plays the piano at the Truman Library on March 21, 1969. Listening are Pat Nixon, Harry Truman, and Bess Truman. (Richard Nixon Presidential Library)

At The New Criterion today, I have a little post on an old question: Do you clap between movements of a symphony, concerto, sonata, or what have you? People have done different things in different periods. And the answer, ultimately, is: It depends.

Boring answer, right? But it’s still true.

After writing my post, I thought of a scene from long ago. I thought some readers would get a kick out of it. (Not all, of course. Never all.)

The inaugural festivities for 1973 included a concert by the Philadelphia Orchestra, under Eugene Ormandy, at the Kennedy Center. Nixon had a particular love for the “Fabulous Philadelphians” and Ormandy.

Say what you will about Nixon — and there is a lot to say — but isn’t it amazing that a president would have a favorite orchestra?

The program consisted of popular classics, including Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the Grieg Piano Concerto. (The soloist in the concerto was Van Cliburn.) Sixteen members of the orchestra had asked to be excused from the concert, on anti-Nixon grounds. The orchestra had said, “Nothing doing.”

That is an interesting story, which I might tell sometime, but my purpose at the moment is: applause.

Okay. I will now quote William Safire in his marvelous memoir, Before the Fall:

Concert-goers know that it is improper to applaud between movements of a symphony or concerto; one is supposed to preserve the mood of the music and withhold applause until the conclusion of the work. But many members of that audience were not experienced in concert-going; they bought tickets because it was the thing to do that night of Inaugural weekend and besides, the President would be there.

At the end of the first movement of Grieg’s Piano Concerto, most of the audience burst into applause for soloist Van Cliburn. From my orchestra seat I craned my neck to see who was doing what in the Presidential box.

John Connally was clapping enthusiastically. Regular concert-goers in the audience knew immediately that he did not know the right thing to do.

Earlier, between movements of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Vice President Agnew had sat stonily, his hands resting in his lap, ostentatiously not applauding. That, too, was a mistake (and of all things, on the elitist side); though the concert-goers would approve, the majority of the audience that looked around wondered why the Vice President did not join in — didn’t he like the performance?

Only Nixon handled the situation with understanding. He did not applaud at first, reassuring other classical music lovers that he was a man who knew what was proper, but after a couple of moments, as eyes turned to him from around the hall, he joined in the applause, so as not to have the people applauding wondering about him, or about their own gaffe.

That is one meaning of “Old Pro.” I was not the only one who noticed this little byplay; Bob Haldeman had also turned in his seat to see what his Boss would do in the circumstances, and when the Nixons joined in the applause, he grinned widely, shook his head, and started to clap as well. The applauding Connally looked at the President too, probably wondering what in hell took him so long to make up his mind.

Can’t you just see it? Yes, an “Old Pro” — the canniest of them — except when he wasn’t.

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