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Concert outburst protects something precious

  • NY Philharmonic conductor scolds man with ringing phone
  • Fellow audience members join in the censure, showing devotion to classical music is alive and well
Concert outburst protects something precious

It’s bad enough when someone’s phone goes off in a meeting, or at a movie theater. But cue up incessant ringing during a symphony performance, and you get a whole new brand of bristling ire.

Bristling ire does not begin to describe what prompted Alan Gilbert, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic to stop the music – stop the music! – in order to chew out a particularly annoying offender.

One blogger who was at the performance of Gustav Mahler’s 9th Symphony on Tuesday, sums up the moment perfectly: “As Alan Gilbert turned to the first violins and the sound grew ever more hushed and veiled, the unmistakable chimes of the iPhone marimba ringtone resounded loud and clear.”

Apparently, after a few minutes (!!!) of this, Gilbert cut the orchestra, wheeled around and asked, into the dark theater, “Are you finished?” After an awkward exchange, Gilbert then apologized to the audience, saying he usually ignored disturbances but, “this was so egregious that I could not allow it.”

Wow. That is just not done. That is not done at all.

As someone who has sung with orchestras countless times, I think sometimes people forget that a live classical (or in this case, Romantic) music performance is an intimate affair, and that intimacy demands a mutual respect between performer and audience.

Unlike movies, which remain identical from showing to showing or larger, more casual, musical affairs where movement and loud carrying-on is tolerated and even encouraged, there are unspoken rules to which a symphony audience adheres.

You don’t come in late. You don’t use a cell phone, and for goodness’ sake, you don’t clap between movements (most well-intentioned newcomers figure that out very quickly).

Perhaps this may add to the notion that classical music (and I use the term here loosely) is a rather stodgy affair, that somehow it's the music of old, dead white men, with its strange theoretical rules and over-regimented sound, and that it is less creative and more inhibited than more modern efforts.

I would argue Gilbert’s response, and the audience's response, prove the exact opposite.

According to viewer accounts, the audience at the Mahler concert applauded Gilbert’s unprecedented outburst. They scolded the offender, and called for a fine for his breach. They resented the intrusion into their silent appreciation. When’s the last time you saw someone get that angry at any other concert?

The man, known as Patron X, has come forward to express his shame. A self-proclaimed lifelong classical music lover, he says he was unfamiliar with a new phone and didn't even know at first it was his device that was ringing.

“It was just awful to have any role in something like that, that is so disturbing and disrespectful,” the man said in a telephone interview with the New York Times, “not only to the conductor but to all the musicians and not least to the audience, which was so into this concert.”

He says he got a call from an orchestra official the morning after. Apparently, they had identified him by his seat.

Maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad if Patron X’s phone hadn’t chosen to tinkle its little marimba ringtone during a particularly sublime and gentle part of the music.

Patron X had a chance to talk to Gilbert, and to apologize. Naturally, Gilbert forgave him. ““It shows how important people still feel live performance is,” Gilbert told the New York Times. “This is something people either consciously or implicitly recognize as sacred.”

You have to feel sorry for Patron X. Everyone makes mistakes, and if what he says is true, his story is even more unfortunate because he understands the depth of his error.

However, there is something comforting and even optimistic about this incident. As a performer, you hope that the audience is as in love with the music as you are. You hope that your attention to every harmonic detail, every swell and whisper, can be shared, appreciated, and celebrated.

So when a distraction inspires such emotional resonance from an audience, you feel, in a way, like they are helping you protect something precious. Classical music is not dead, and it will never die. Together, performers and audiences rely on each other to keep it alive.

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