Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Punta Gorda's Public Works Department

Our latest Citizens Academy session found us at the Public Works Department.  Department Director Rick Keeney kicked off the session by commenting that the members of his Department are the "unsung heroes" of Punta Gorda. After spending the morning learning the scope of what these men and women do, I'm in whole-hearted agreement with his characterization.

Here are some of the highlights:

Student Bruce Tompkins
--The Public Works guys are responsible for maintaining 116 miles of roads, 55 miles of sidewalks, 5079 street signs and 25 doggie doo stations. They also maintain PGI's 50 miles of canals (which translates into 100 miles of seawalls) and Burnt Store Isles' 7.5 miles of canals (15 miles of seawalls). 

--For PGI residents like me, the canal maintenance program was particularly interesting. The PGI canal system was built in the 1960s and '70s. Approximately 27% of the original canals have been replaced.  The seawalls are held in place by "dead man blocks" that extend 16 feet into the yard.  They weigh 1500 pounds. Tie back rods connect the sea wall panels to the dead man blocks. 

Recently poured sea walls
--The sea wall panels are built on site at the Public Works Department.  (Yes, this is unusual.)  Each panel is six inches thick with a rebar in the middle and weighs approximately 5,000 pounds. (Note: The original walls were only four inches thick.) They typically pour 15 panels a day to keep a supply on hand.

--Residents who live on the canals are in a special tax district that funds canal maintenance and reconstruction. The annual tax is $500 per lot; i.e., it is not based on linear square footage of seawall. 

--Residents are responsible for their own dredging outside of the navigable channel. While boat owners sometimes complain about not being able to dredge as deep as they would like, there's a good reason for the restrictions. The berm at the bottom of the canal helps hold the sea walls in place. Less berm translates into more maintenance.  Similarly, homeowners should not edge along their sea walls.  While the look might be nice at first, the eventual crumbling of their sea walls due to water seeping in behind them will not be attractive. 

--The discussion about the sanitation division (essentially trash and recycling collection) had the students on high alert. You heard it here first: The City is considering moving from the 18 gallon blue recycling bins to a single rolling 48 gallon bin. Some studies indicate that the larger bins promote more recycling. Given Punta Gorda's demographics, its residents might also prefer rolling their recycling out to the curb to lifting and carrying.  (Note: Despite the two bins we currently have, PG's recycling is single stream, meaning you can mix plastics and paper.)

--Plastic bags are high on the list of bad things people put in their recycling bins. Bags can easily get tangled in the sorting machinery, leading to the operation being shut down while the bag is manually removed. Pizza boxes and styrofoam are also no-nos. So are those popular LED and CFL light bulbs, which contain a small amount of mercury. Home Depots/Lowes have bins for their disposal.

--We toured the Public Works grounds and were treated to a demonstration of a pot hole being filled. The hot patch is 300 degrees when laid down.  In order to compress the area, workers use a rolling machine with a handle that swings front to back. For larger pot holes, the worker flips the handle over to his teammate at the midpoint so neither have to step on the hot patch.  It takes approximately 20 minutes to set and cool. 

--The Facilities' Division is responsible for all the traffic lights in town.  This includes the blue lights on traffic signals that raise so many questions. FYI, the blue light is lit when the traffic light is red. So, if a car goes through an intersection with a blue light burning, it's another indication that the driver was in a bit too much of a hurry. 

--The Engineering Division has the "pleasure of taking care of projects while they are being built."  Their current projects include the pickleball court conversion in Gilchrist Park and the re-bricking of Durrance Street. They are also responsible for ADA compliance of the City's sidewalks and buildings. When a road is resurfaced, the adjacent sidewalk has to be upgraded. So, for instance, the sidewalks on Aqui Esta have "tactile surface warnings" that alert visually impaired pedestrians to an approaching intersection and curb ramps that allow wheelchairs to enter the intersection. (The curb ramps are great for bikers as well.) 

I will admit (with some chagrin) that I have taken the job done by the Public Works Department for granted. Thanks to the Citizens Academy for raising my awareness.  Now it's time for me to get my recycling to the curb. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Who Put the Hit on Ponce?

Riding in Pedal and Play in Paradise has become an annual event for me. At its core, it's a bike ride sponsored by TEAM Punta Gorda and the Isles Yacht Club to benefit bike friendly initiatives and The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. And while I could pretend that I ride to support these great causes, the truth is that's it just a really fun day.

Participants are given the choice of 60, 30 or 15 mile straight up rides or the 10 mile mystery ride.  Each year my intention is to sign up for at least the 15 mile ride (which, given the lack of elevation changes, is not a big deal). But each year the mystery ride sounds so entertaining that my good intentions go by the wayside.  This year was no exception.

Mayor Freeland with Inspector Tompkins
The mystery to be solved was the cold case of "Who Put the Hit on Ponce?"  As I'm sure you all know, Ponce de Leon died in 1521 after he was shot by an arrow poisoned with the sap of a Machineel tree. What you might not have known, though, is that the master mind behind this murder was one of Punta Gorda's own "Fat Point Four" (Mayor Carolyn Freeland, Police Chief Butch Arenal, Fire Chief Ray Briggs and City Manager Howard Kunik).  It was Scotland Yard investigator Bruce ("Sherlock") Tompkins who discovered this connection nearly 500 years after the fact.  And it was his intention to solve the mystery of which one of these city officials was responsible once and for all -- with the help of Dorrit (aka Watson/Vanna) and the mystery tour riders.  

As is customary in murder investigations, the footage from the interrogations was made available to the public.  (Click here to view the most hilarious of Bruce's videos. You might notice that only one of the suspects retained counsel.)

Bruce and Dorrit set up two clues booths (or what I called obfuscation stations) that were chock full of incredibly unhelpful information.  Janice and I rode to the booth in Gilchrist where we were confronted with over a dozen "clues" that said things like "Clues stated as declarative sentences are true," "The Mayor uttered one true sentence and one false sentence" and "The City Manager is incomprehensible, but is it just the peace pipe?" As we rode along and discussed the case, we realized that we were spending much more time analyzing Bruce than the leads we had been given. 

Me, Chief, Janice and Dorrit
When we arrived back at Laishley Park, we spent some quality time with Chief Phull-a-Bull, the Calusa Indian who had conducted the autopsy on Ponce. After more discussion, we cast our votes for the identity of the guilty party and awaited the verdict (while consuming way more calories than we had burned on our little ride). 

At the appointed hour, the suspects were lined up along with some Conquistadors there to maintain control of the situation.  Modern day police were also on hand to take custody of the offending party.  After much ado, Bruce announced that the responsible party was --- drum roll, please -- City Manager Howard Kunik. Really? I, for one, was very surprised -- and more than a bit dismayed that both Janice and I had voted for the wrong scoundrel.

The guilty party:  City Manager Howard Kunik 
 Howard donned a prisoner's cap and was handcuffed and taken away.  He was immediately released pursuant to a work order so he could lead the City Manager's ride, another great Pedal and Play tradition.

Once again, it was a fun day Punta Gorda style.  I give a lot of credit not only to Bruce and Dorrit for scheming this whole thing up, but also to each of the "Fat Point Four" for participating with such gusto.  And, of course, to the volunteers from TEAM Punta Gorda and the Isles Yacht Club who made the whole event happen.  I'm already looking forward to next year. 

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Visiting the Punta Gorda Police Department

Police Chief Butch Arenal
Our most recent session of the Citizens' Academy found us at the Punta Gorda Police Department.  Chief Butch Arenal kicked off the session by saying he wanted us to pay attention to the people in the PGPD, not the equipment. He then introduced us to some members of his "leadership team."  I thought we were at the police department, not a corporation.  What's going on here????

It turns out that Chief Arenal spends a good amount of time thinking about organizational culture. There are apparently two models for police departments: the traditional paramilitary police model and a private sector business model. The Chief's approach to guarding the residents of Punta Gorda is to merge these two models, with a heavy emphasis on the business side of the equation. The result: In 2013,  the PGPD was named the Pinnacle Business of the Year by the Punta Gorda Chamber of Commerce. 

What this means in practice is that the Department applies a number of business metrics to its analysis of how well it provides its services. Like every other department in the City of Punta Gorda, the Police Department has a serious focus on customer service. Staff volunteers follow up with people who requested police service to get their feedback -- and the information is diseeminated throughout the department.  Among other things, this practice promotes accountability. (So does having each police car painted with the name of the officer who drives it.)  To read about some of the other reasons why the PGPD won the Pinnacle Award, click here.

In other PGPD news:

--The PGPD has been awarded Excelsior Status by the Florida Commission of Law Enforcement Accreditation. Achieving this status requires that the Department receive accreditation without conditions for five consecutive terms (for a total of 15 years).  Fewer than 10% of the 400 law enforcement agencies in Florida have attained this status.

Lt. Joe King with PGPD bike and segway
--Youth programs are one of the PGPD's primary focus areas.  The Jammers Youth Basketball League is a co-ed summer basketball league coached by off-duty police officers.  The Jazzy Jammers Cheer & Dance Squad is kicking off this year for girls who don't play basketball. These programs provide an opportunity for the officers to serve as role models and mentors to at-risk kids in our community.  The PGPD also runs DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), Do the Right Thing and School Resource Officer programs. (The School Resource Officer at Charlotte High has to get around on a segway since the campus covers 60 acres!)

--And now for some crime statistics (which, you might notice, are not the lead given the relative lack of crime in our community!) Chief Arenal shared the 2014 Uniform Crime Report Numbers with us. Overall, the crime rate in Punta Gorda was down 10% from 2013, and violent crime was essentially non-existent.  The Chief reported that, "We don't allow murders in Punta Gorda," and the record reflects that policy.  Forcible assaults were down from two in 2013 to zero in 2014 and aggravated assaults were down from 17 to five.  There were 39 burglaries last year (which includes bike thefts).  The Chief commented that in Punta Gorda, one or two burglaries constitutes a "rash" of thefts.

K9 Officer Lee Coel and Spirit
--Our reward for listening attentively to the Chief was a show-and-tell session. First, we spent a little time with K9 Officer Lee Coel and Spirit. Spirit is a 2-1/2 year old German Shepherd that was born in Czechoslavakia. (Among other characteristics, European German Shepherds have stronger knees than their American counterparts.) Spirit was selected from 22 dogs at a North Carolina kennel that raises dogs to be used by the military and police. Officer Coel and Spirit then went to a five month training school where Spirit became certified as a narcotics dog. (K9s can be certified in drugs or bombs, but not both.) In a recent K9 trial for the FL/GA/ALA region, Spirit came in 11th overall and 3rd in criminal apprehension. Coel and Spirit came in second as a team. Spirit's work life is expected to span nine-ten years.     

--Last  up was a Taser demonstration that two Citizens Academy students participated in. (I was jealous.)  After moving the front row of students out of harm's way, each participant aimed her weapon--which discharges 50,000 volts of electricity--at a paper target and let it rip.  I had always thought Tasers were pure streams of electricity, but it turns out there are two wires with metal prongs on the end that shoot out. The ideal is for one prong to go straight and the other to hit at a seven degree angle down so you strike the target both above and below the waist.  (The students did a good job of disabling their perps.) The most times members of the PGPD have had to actually Tase suspects in one year is seven. The officers have found that the mere threat of using a Taser (or letting a K9 loose, for that matter) is generally sufficient to persuade the suspect to surrender.

All in all, it was another interesting and enlightening session of the Citizens Academy.  As they used to say in Hill Street Blues, "Let's be careful out there."    

Friday, March 27, 2015

Literary Luncheon with Lisa See

Author Lisa See
Appearances can be deceiving.  And so it was with Lisa See, a best-selling author known for her works of historical fiction about the lives of Chinese women. First, I'll state the obvious.  Ms. See's appearance is as all-American as can be, which is not what most people expect. Nonetheless, her interest in Chinese culture and history comes directly from her own family history. (More to come on this.) Second, when I watched Ms. See signing books, she was all business.  She moved the line along with a signature and a quick smile, which left me with the impression that her talk might be a bit on the dry side. I could not have been more mistaken.

Shoes worn by Chinese women
whose feet had been bound
Within moments of taking the podium, Ms. See had the audience in the palm of her hand.  She also had a show-and-tell item in the palm of her hand, compliments of a woman attending the event whose grandparents had been missionaries in China.  Ms. See held up a tiny shoe, not much larger than a forefinger.  It was an actual shoe worn by a woman whose feet had been bound.  Like most people in the audience, I had read Ms. See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, a book in which the practice of foot binding plays a role.  Trying to imagine these women's feet and actually seeing their shoes are two entirely different things, however.  (Note:  The picture here shows three shoes held in a TSA-approved size of baggie.)  The scene was now perfectly set for Ms. See's talk.

Ms. See began with a quick--but fascinating--overview of her heritage.  Her great great grandparents lived in China, where her great great grandmother made a living by carrying people on her back from village to village.  Ms. See's great grandfather Fong See emigrated in the 1880s to Sacramento, where he worked in a factory that made crotchless underwear for brothels.  (Their motto was "fancy underwear for fancy ladies.")  He built a mercantile empire and became the godfather/patriarch of Los Angele's Chinatown.  He was a powerful man in many ways.  He had four wives in his lifetime (at least two were concurrent), and he fathered a child when he was in his 90s.  (Before the days of Viagra, Ms. See pointed out.)  One of those wives was a white woman, a union that contravened the laws prohibiting marriages between Caucasians and persons with more than one-quarter Chinese blood. Ms. See herself grew up in Chinatown as part of an extended 400+ person Chinese-American family. 

With this background, Ms. See introduced China Dolls, her latest bookThe novel deals with the relationship between three female friends, a dynamic that Ms. See has witnessed firsthand.  Ms. See's mother has two lifelong girlfriends and, according to Ms. See, "On any given day, one of them will be on the outs." Her observation confirms research done by NASA into the "correct" number of astronauts to send into space. (The decision was two astronauts rather than three in order to prevent situations in which two people would gang up against the third.) 

My favorite booksellers (Serena and Cathy
from Copperfish Books) were on hand
The women in China Dolls meet at the Forbidden City Nightclub in San Francisco in 1938.  You may have heard of the Borscht Belt, an area of the Catskills known as a vacation spot for New York's Jewish community. Comedians, singers, dancers and variety acts (of the likes of Milton Berle, Rodney Dangerfield, Carol Channing and Sammy Davis, Jr.) would take their acts on the road to the Borscht Belt.  The Chop Suey Circuit was the Chinese equivalent with its own entertainers (who were not so flatteringly referred to by reference to the Caucasian performers; i.e., the "Chinese Fred and Ginger" or the "Chinese Frank Sinatra.") 

While researching her book, Ms. See had the chance to talk with a number of women who performed on the Chop Suey Circuit.  One interviewee was a 91 year old former dancer who still teaches Jazzercise. Another was a woman named "Mai Tai" after whom the drink is purportedly named. (I'm not sure what her act was, but her favorite all time costume was made from 15 yards of monkey fur.)  Ms. See's website has extensive information about the background for China Dolls that includes videos of her interviews with three women who performed at the Forbidden City Nightclub.  (Click here to check it out. FYI, there is a similar section on Dreams of Joy.)

Thanks to the Friends of the Punta Gorda Library for bringing such a wonderful speaker to our little town.  I am now officially primed for Book Expo, which is coming up in May.  So many books, so little time. 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Unplugged with Bill Bowers at Asolo Rep

You know it's getting to the end of the season when theaters start running their new play festivals. As a rule, these festivals feature readings of new plays rather than full blown productions. While the term "reading" implies that people (who may not even be actors) sit and read dryly through a script, my experience has been anything but that.  Although readings are not polished productions -- and there are no costumes or sets -- you get a real sense of the potential of a show.  If the story is good, I find myself just as drawn in as I might a show with all the bells and whistles.  And as a bonus, the playwright is typically on hand to get feedback from the audience.  It's exciting to feel like you're getting in on the ground floor of what might be the next big thing.

Bill Bowers
That's a long introduction to what was a truly fabulous night of theater/storytelling with mime Bill Bowers.  The event--entitled "Stories from the Road"--was the first of the Asolo Repertory Theatre's Sixth Annual "Unplugged" New Play Festival.  As soon as I saw that Bowers' work would be taken for a test drive, I knew Dorrit and I had to go. Last year we went to see a recital of sorts with the Asolo Conservatory students showing off their mime techniques after spending a week with Bowers.  It was a blast.  (Click here to read my blog about that experience.)  The chance to hear Bowers tell stories from his travels was too good an opportunity to miss. 

Jory Murphy as  Bowers' "lovely assistant"
Within moments of Bowers taking the stage, we knew we were in for a ride.  He informed us at the outset that he has changed the name of his play from "Stories from the Road" to "Nude Amish Hookers & the Mime Who Loves Them." Given the new title, you probably won't be surprised to hear that I was literally doubled over with laughter throughout the evening.

With the play still taking shape, Bowers had categorized his stories into seven themes, from "How Did This Happen to Me?" to "Weird Jobs" to "For Adults Only."  Each category was listed on a poster board with sticky notes about potential stories. He would ask the audience to yell out a category, decide which area was most in demand at that moment, grab a sticky note, and launch into his tale. Most of the stories dealt with people he had encountered while on the road giving workshops and performances, and I would be hard pressed to say which was the funniest. Was it the one about the woman whose rabbit took one of Bowers' workshops (and engaged in extensive email correspondence with him)?  Or perhaps it was the tale that ended with a young student guessing that Bowers wasn't wearing his white face make-up because it was after Labor Day?

It was a treat to listen in on a post-performance chat with Bowers, director Greg Leaming and the audience (which included both Conservatory students and a lot of folks who are clearly serious theater people).  Bowers shared that his other two plays -- "Under a Montana Moon" and "'Night Sweetheart, 'Night Buttercup" -- started in the same way; i.e., by telling the stories rather than from a written script.  "The alchemy of the audience and the stories tells me what the play is going to be, " he said.

There was a slight difference of opinion as to whether the final version of the play should have a clearer theme. To me, the play worked more or less as it was, in part because of the audience's participation. Our role put us in a position not dissimilar to that of the people in Bowers' stories. We too were there to learn about Bowers' craft, albeit from a different perspective.  And while I didn't leave with the ability to execute a leaning tower of Pisa, I did come away with a greater appreciation--once again--of the unexpected ways in which the arts can open our eyes to new worlds and ever-so-slightly change our attitudes and expectations.      

I was thrilled to hear that the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York has already signed Bowers on to present his new play there next spring.  I always love having an excuse to go to New York, and I can't imagine a better one than watching Bill Bowers in action. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Meeting the Master Planners

Mitchell Lawson, David Hilston, Teri Tubbs and Lisa Hannon
The most recent Citizens Academy session was an introduction to the world of urban design and growth management.  It's a big job to keep Punta Gorda the beautiful place it is -- and not always a popular one.

Department head David Hilston kicked off the morning with an example of the crazy questions they sometimes get.  One resident asked, "How many elephants can we have in our yard?"  They actually had an answer: one. (Note to caller: I understand that Ringling Bros. might have some elephants available for purchase.)

The Department overview was a bit of a whirlwind as we learned about this function in just two hours.  Here are some of the highlights.

Punta Gorda's
Comprehensive Plan 
--The job of the folks in urban design/growth management is to plan for the Punta Gorda of the future. Their focus is 20-30 years out (so I'm sure a crystal ball would come in handy sometimes.) Interestingly, the very popular Punta Gorda Pathways project was first proposed back in 1989.

--Punta Gorda's comprehensive plan establishes guidelines for physical development of the City.  Chief Planner Joan LeBeau calls it "the hub of everything."  Its elements range from infrastructure and community facilities to conservation and transportation.  (The regulations restricting the removal of burrowing owls fall under the area of conservation.)  The comprehensive plan is reviewed every five - seven years, and the process is about to begin.  Public input will be requested, so speak now or plan hold your peace until at least 2020!

--Hilston introduced Teri Tubbs and zoning by saying, "The zoners take the dreamers and smack them back to reality."  While it's easy to picture these people as popping a balloon filled with ideas, the reality is that their input prevents people from expending resources on projects that aren't going to work in the real world.

--Permitted use regulations are not consistent across the City. There are a number of "overlay districts" for which special rules apply.  So, for instance, property owners in the Historical Overlay District must obtain a "certificate of appropriateness" before any exterior work is done or signage installed. One of the ongoing efforts involves creation of a county overlay for south Punta Gorda where there are enclaves of county property that don't have to comply with city regs.

--Development and enforcement of the City's Landscape Code also falls to this Department. Punta Gorda prides itself on being a "tree city" and strives to maintain pre-development levels of a 30% tree canopy.  Hence the rule that new home builders plant one canopy tree -- or two palms -- for each 4,000 feet of building site.  (Homeowners who really don't want to comply with this rule can pay a fee of $750 that the City will use to plant a tree on City property.)  FYI, get in touch with the City if you want some help with plantings for the island in your cul-de-sac. There's a reason they all look so nice!

--Contrary to popular belief, Punta Gorda does not have a "no chain restaurant" ordinance.  Instead, it is the City's architectural requirements--and a prohibition on drive-through restaurants--that have proven an impediment to getting our own golden arches here.  (The Dunkin' Donuts' drive-through was grandfathered in.)

--Nobody likes to see those little code compliance trucks parked in front of their home. But we also don't like to see cars up on blocks or more than one elephant in the neighbor's yard.  More restrictive rules apply in Punta Gorda Isles, Burnt Store Isles and Burnt Store Meadows. Previously, these communities were deed restricted and had to do their own enforcement.  Code compliance is also responsible for the lot mowing program that was in the press recently.

View from Marriage Point
in Laishley Park
--Punta Gorda has 109 acres dedicated to its 19 parks.  Laishley, Gilchrist and Ponce parks have areas available for rent at rates ranging from $5-$20/hour.  In case you're wondering, the guitar army folks who take over Gilchrist Park on Tuesday and Thursday nights don't rent the pavilions. The tradition is treated as a "non-event/event."  Heads up that reconstruction of the sea wall in Gilchrist Park will begin soon.  The park will continue to be open, but it definitely will not be as inviting with construction equipment parked in the open spaces. I suspect the guitar army musicians and fans will persevere.

--Chief Building Official Randy Cole confessed some concern about making his presentation interesting.  So he started off with an explanation of the origin of building codes -- the Code of Hammurabi circa 1772 BC.  Section 229 reads: "If a builder builds a house for someone and has not made his house sound, and the house he built has fallen and caused the death of its owner, the builder shall be put to death."  Whoa!

--Perhaps the most amazing take-away of the morning was the responsiveness of the building division to requests for inspection.  If you call for an inspection by 6:00 in the morning, officials will be out that same day to check out the work.  (Note: They have a recorded line in case you wake up in the middle of night and think, "Rats!  I forgot to schedule that inspection.")

Mr. Hilston had started his comments by saying that Punta Gorda is a "glorious" place to work.  It's also a glorious place to live, thanks in no small part to the folks at Urban Design/Growth Management.

Next up:  a visit to the Punta Gorda Police Department.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Applause, please...but not now

In my former life, there was a Mexican restaurant in the Berkshires we would sometimes brave for dinner.  My strongest memory of the place is not the food, but the strolling guitarist.  He would strum and sing and periodically pause and exhort the diners with an "Applause, please!"  If he approached our table, we would preemptively start clapping in hopes he would veer off to torment someone else who needed more encouragement.

This memory surfaced recently in the unexpected context of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra.  Not, of course, because the audience has to be encouraged to applaud, but because we seem to want to applaud too much.

Last week-end's concert featured Brahms' "Symphony No. 4 op. 98, in E minor."  If you, like me, associate Brahms primarily with his lullaby, the energy of this symphony might surprise you.  The first movement is lush and lively and leaves you wanting more.  As the music faded, the audience broke into applause.  And I'm not talking a spattering of applause by a few people. At least half the concert-goers breached concert etiquette.  I heard some murmurs around me as people shook their heads and said, "They're not supposed to clap between movements." And while I too wanted to show my appreciation of the music, I did what I was "supposed" to do and sat quietly.

This cycle continued through the rest of the symphony. Maestro Ponti gave in to it after the third movement and jokingly used his score to fan concertmaster Stewart Kitts. Not surprisingly, when the music was well and truly over, the CSO received a standing ovation for a stunning performance of this beautiful work.

The audience's reaction to the Brahms was not an isolated case  (although it was remarkable in the number of people applauding "inappropriately"). At some concerts, a gentle reminder has been given to wait until the end to clap. This hasn't always worked as intended, however. On occasion, I have felt that the audience's fear of clapping at the wrong time led to a delayed reaction when the final notes had been played. What to do (short of purchasing an "applause" sign to be lit at the appropriate time)?

At the post-concert gathering at Opus, I talked with my friend--and first violinist--Paul Urbanick about the applause "problem."  Paul explained that the purpose behind the silent pause is to indicate that something new is coming and to give the conductor and musicians a moment to regroup.  That makes sense. It's sort of like a sorbet between courses in a gourmet meal.  I was interested to learn, however, that the custom of applauding only at the end of a work is not a universal practice.  In fact, Paul was once at a performance by the Paris Orchestra where a solo was so enthusiastically received that the conductor stopped and had the musician replay it!  And, he went on, those fiery Latin personalities in South America often can't wait until the end to show their appreciation.  Interesting.

While doing a bit of internet surfing, I came across a terrific article by Chicago Tribune reporter Mark Caro about just this topic as it relates to another CSO -- the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Caro makes some great points, including that the "no clap rule" is a bit intimidating and reinforces the impression that going to the symphony is a stuffy experience.  Click here to read "Claptrap--When to clap or not to clap at concerts."  His commentary definitely provides some food for thought.

Last year I went to the concert the CSO put on for Charlotte County third graders. The students had been introduced to classical music with a classroom visit by Maestro Ponti and were there to hear a live performance. The experience was like a rock concert as the kids whooped and clapped at will -- and it was a blast.  And while I don't think adult audiences should break the"no clap" tradition in such a dramatic fashion, I do wonder if we shouldn't just relax a bit and forego our judgment if someone expresses their enjoyment with some unconventional applause.  After all, isn't appreciation of the music what it's all about?

Postscript:  My friend Maggie sent me this link about the development of the no-clapping tradition.  It's interesting to read about Mozart's, Brahms' and other composers' take on the question.