Something strange seems to be happening in that spiffy new concert hall in Orange County. People are clapping.

The happy and justifiably proud Costa Mesans, and friends, are clapping con brio and con gusto. They are clapping loudly, smugly and dutifully. Unfortunately, they often are clapping in the wrong places, and possibly for the wrong reasons.

This has made the presumed recipients of the applause palpably unhappy. Even more irksome, apparently, it has made critical observers unhappy.

The journalistic unhappiness has, in turn, made the clap-happy ones unhappy. The cycle is complete, if not vicious. Also profoundly bemusing and mildly vexing.

At the supergala brouhaha extravaganza that marked the grand opening of Segerstrom Hall, one of the fund-raising cheer-leading we're-all-right-Jack speech-makers instructed the assembled devout--who had paid up to $2,000 per ducat--to applaud themselves.

The glittery throng, 3,000 strong, didn't need to be asked twice. Nor did the masses stop clapping when the obligatory throat-clearing and back-patting exercises ended.

Zubin Mehta was on the podium for the mighty, eloquent, ultimately jubilant Ninth Symphony of Beethoven. One may or may not admire his interpretation, but one must respect his sense of architecture.

He clearly thinks of the work as a unified statement, as a continuous expressive crescendo that begins with the first ominous note of the first movement and reaches a climax only with the final thunderbolts of the "Ode to Joy." The silly old composer, long dead, harbored similar convictions.

The eager first-nighters, however, showered the stage--and, perhaps, themselves--with ovations whenever they sensed an imminent pause or cadence.

Forget about cumulative tensions. Forget about letting any emotional impact sink in. Forget about Beethoven's probing agonies and noble ecstasies. Never mind interrupted thoughts and short-circuited communication on both sides of the proscenium.

Mood-shattering, push-button cheers and instant hoorays seemed mandatory at every turn. No, between every turn.

Mehta raised his arms in obvious disapproval if not disdain. He glared and glowered as only he can glare and glower. He looked like a policeman at an intersection staring down four rows of souped-up Rolls-Royces manned by impatient teen-agers.

The conspicuous consumers paid no heed. What does the conductor know? Who cares what he wants?

A few nights later, Leontyne Price joined Kurt Sanderling and the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the tender, aching, valedictory sentiments of Richard Strauss' Four Last Songs. A cautionary note in the program requested applause only after the final song. Unmoved, the audience all but ruined that performance, too, with premature ovations.

The soprano, still as a statue, ignored the well-meant interruptions. The conductor motioned for silence. It was all in vain.

A few nights after that, Price returned for an evening of songs and arias. The crowd buried her in salvos of admiration throughout the program. Ironically, the celebrants could muster only enough applause to bring the diva back for two encores. She normally gives more than that. Ovations apparently come easy in Orange County, and go even easier.

The following week, Isaac Stern took the stage for a recital. The zealous noise makers in attendance started congratulating him, and, perhaps, themselves, in mid-sonata.

He raised his bow in protest. The music-lovers paid no attention. When the sonata was over, an unusually strong measure was taken: A voice on the public-address system begged the audience to withhold its applause. So much for public education.

Christoph von Dohnanyi recently led the vaunted Cleveland Orchestra through Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" in Orange County. He, too, tried desperately to quell inappropriate applause. John Henken reported the visiting maestro's distress on these pages:

"Dohnanyi launched the finale before the clapping stopped. Then, with the last chord still sounding and Dohnanyi's hands still poised in the air, early applause killed it as well."

Another critic, locally based, reported "the disgusted expression on (Dohnanyi's) face as he walked off stage without shaking the hand of the concertmaster."

The problem of clap-happy audiences in Orange County has elicited newspaper comment in such presumed centers of sophistication as Los Angeles, San Francisco and Phoenix. Even Santa Ana has registered disapproval.

But there have been counterprotests. Numerous letter-to-the-editor writers have defended their God-given right to maul music and abuse art. Most have chanted the same defensive Leitmotif: We paid for the privilege!

They did indeed pay. They paid well over $70 million to build their performing-arts center. It is a notable achievement.

Still, there would seem to be a few things money can't buy even in Orange County: aesthetic sensitivity, for example, or respect for cultural genius, or consideration for those who come to hear rather than be heard.

The key to the problem may be manifest in the deathless prose of an erudite Orange County Register columnist (not to be confused with music critic or media reporter). In response to the great break-up-Beethoven imbroglio, he came up a classic rhetorical query.

"What was so wrong?" he asked in print. "We clap in the midst of a baseball game, don't we?"

Now we understand. In Costa Mesa, Beethoven's Ninth is just another game.

If such reasoning prevails, they'll soon be hawking peanuts in the aisles and rousing the crowd with instant replays of exceptionally felicitous passages. They'll sing "Take Me Out to the Concert" during the third-movement stretch.

It gives one pause.

Contrary to implied speculation, Orange County holds no monopoly on ill-timed clapping. It is just that the glamorous new arts emporium seems to have gotten off on the wrong hand, so to speak.

The conspicuously wining and dining audiences that fill the wide-open spaces of Hollywood Bowl often confuse a concert with a circus.

Smash-bam endings of first movements of popular concertos often elicit ovations at the Music Center, and only part of the audience there can really think the work already is over.

Self-declared balletomanes at Shrine Auditorium frequently lose all control, all sense of perspective and all sense of decorum at the very hint of a pirouette or the temporary exit of a star. Who goes to the ballet to listen, anyway?

Opera audiences from New York to Seattle sometimes go wild at the approach of a hoped-for high C, even if it turns out to be bawled and/or transposed. They also like to applaud the scenery and any livestock that may be enlisted to enhance bucolic verisimilitude. Music, be damned.

In a few operatic instances, the performers themselves must share the blame for distractions. Our audiences invariably take the slow descent of a curtain as a signal for applause. Therefore, it might be wise for stage directors to consider a blackout instead of a slow curtain. That way, the soft, reflective music that follows the love duet in "Madama Butterfly" or Otello's death, for instance, might not get lost amid the bravos.

Egomaniacal singers might also be encouraged, if that is the right verb, to refrain from stepping out of character and milking the audience. A little applause in that context goes a long way. The aria may have come to an end, but the act has not.

With the advent of the ubiquitous and loathesome supertitle, the day may not be far off when basic response-commands are flashed on the screen above the proscenium, just like traffic signals:

APPLAUD (green), or, more important, DON'T APPLAUD (red).

The foregoing should not imply arbitrary stifling of the passionate, spontaneous reaction to something exciting. There is nothing like the sudden, unanimous roar of approval--and attendant release of tension--that sweeps over a house when a cataclysmic experience has been shared. The Music Center heard such a roar at the end of the recent "Salome" performances with Maria Ewing.

Sometimes, however, a moment of silence--a moment in which a rapt audience pauses to regain its breath, not to mention its composure--can be an even greater tribute.

All rules can and should be broken, of course, under extraordinary circumstances. Stress the adjective. Artur Rubinstein went on record deploring applause between movements of concertos. Nevertheless, on occasions when he was really inspired, he was known to bounce off the bench after an opening allegro, beam to the masses and cop a well-deserved bow or two.

The worst kind of ovation is the automatic ovation.

It comes not because the performance in question was special. It comes not because the masses were uplifted. It comes because a dominant-seventh chord has been resolved, because the artist involved is famous, because the public has been able to recognize some familiar tune, or because the guy in the next seat has risen to his feet and is making a lot of noise.

Standing ovations don't mean much any more. They are too easy, too plentiful, too common.

The fundamental problem involves the way we listen to music today. Some people, helpless victims of the television-and-Muzak age, have been conditioned to regard music as mere entertainment or as background babble.

Music can be trivial, to be sure. It also can be overwhelming.

The loftiest composers--Beethoven, Mozart, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, et al.--didn't just organize sounds to soothe or amuse us. They were driven. They wanted, needed, to stimulate the head as well as the heart. They dealt in verities, profundities, subtleties.

Like all great innovators, they tried to enlighten, to ennoble, to transport us. They also tried to stretch our ears.

Serious music demands concentration. It does not, however, demand piety.

A concert hall is not a church. Nor is it a living room or an elevator. It certainly should not be confused with a ball park.

The general admonitions are simple: Listen first, and listen carefully. If cheering seems imperative, cheer. But, if possible, cheer at the end of the piece.

When in doubt, stop, look and wait. Beethoven, and Mehta, will smile upon you.