Thursday, January 12, 2012

Concert Interrupted

The classical music world was much abuzz about how the final moments of Gustav Mahler’s monumental Symphony No. 9 were brought to a premature end by the persistent ringing of a cell phone from an audience member sitting in the front row.

As an example, watch this brief excerpt (the very last 7 minutes of a 90-minute symphony) with Leonard Bernstein conducting Mahler’s 9th with the Vienna Philharmonic:
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Now imagine, after 84 minutes of musical intensity, a cell-phone begins to ring at 1:13.

That is what happened Tuesday night with the New York Philharmonic’s performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9.

Alan Gilbert, the orchestra’s music director, quietly brought the orchestra to a stop and turned to the offending patron and asked, after what seemed a lengthy silence, if he was finished. Apparently, the ringing had gone on for some time and I presume the man had been oblivious, allowing it to continue ringing.

Consider the inconsiderate listener who single-handedly destroyed the hard work of 100 hard-working musicians and the experience being shared by a concert hall full of listeners which, if it were sold out, would number 2,783, bringing to a halt a movement that had already been building to its enigmatic, soulful conclusion for the past 20-some minutes, capping off a cathartic symphony that pulls you through its deeply personal world for an hour and a half.

This is not the first time this has happened and I’m pessimistic to say it will probably not be the last, but what do you do when people, for whatever reason, leave their cell-phones on during a concert or – worse – let them continue ringing (no doubt thinking it’s some other idiot’s phone)?

 Gilbert apologized to the audience after they erupted in rage against the offender (with cries of having him kicked out, of fining him $1,000), and then started the orchestra at the intense climax that eventually winds down to the symphony’s final breaths.

But that concert was a costly experience, not just in terms of the emotional wrenching back into reality – whatever the orchestra’s payroll and however much everybody had paid for their tickets – and one they will never have back again.

You can read an account of the incident, here.

(If you want to read more about the Harrisburg Symphony’s performance of Mahler’s 9th which Stuart Malina conducted in January, 2009, check this post.)

Everybody probably has their favorite concert-going horror story. I know I have sat in concert halls where somebody’s phone began to ring and rather than turning it off, he answered it. “Yeah? No, I’m at a concert, whaddaya want? Yeah. Okay. Yeah, I’ll check it when I get home. Uh huh. Call you tomorrow. Bye.”

Yeah, like that couldn’t’ve waited until after the concert was over?

I related two incidents – well, one real one and one that threatened to become real – in this post on my blog, “Thoughts on a Train,” about a drunken gentleman of a certain age ruined the first two movements of the Schubert String Quintet at a Market Square Concert performance in Whitaker Center and also recounting an earlier experience at the Met when I sat next to a guy who was pretending to be the broadcast host for Meyerbeer’s La Prophete.

But my favorite war-story concerns a similar moment with the New York Philharmonic in that same Avery Fisher Hall with Zubin Mehta conducting (this was in 1979 or 1980) with the final movement of Bruckner’s 9th Symphony – another 9th, and one that also pulls you toward its equally soulful ending, a long descent from one of the most excruciatingly intense discords in 19th Century music. This is followed by a resonant silence as if the world were holding its breath, then, rather than resolving, transcends the pain of reality by quietly lifting you into another plane entirely with its beatific chant on the tubas.

Listen to this excerpt with Eugen Jochum conducting the Berlin Radio Symphony, only the 2nd part of the 25-minute-long slow movement of a symphony that, even without the fourth movement Bruckner was unable to complete before his death, lasts about an hour.

Begin at 5:30 into the clip to appreciate the build-up, if you can’t start from the beginning. The climactic chord begins intensifying around 8:00, then cuts off at 8:58 (watch the conductor’s expression) – then resumes at 9:07 to the tubas’ chorale at 11:45 and from there to the end.

Now, imagine you’re sitting at the back of the hall in a balcony’s cheap seats when that chord cuts off at 8:58 and you can hear two women chattering, their talk reverberating through the silence!!!

Instead of a climax, there was a mighty rushing wind as a thousand people shooshed and hissed the offenders and Zubin Mehta, who had been conducting the New York Phil in a breath-taking performance, brought the orchestra in almost immediately and at such a deflated emotional level, the rest of the symphony’s four minutes felt like the whole performance was dead-on-arrival without transfiguration. Not to reflect on the orchestra’s always professional playing, but the emotional impact following this interruption.

Now, fast forward about six or seven years to a Harrisburg Symphony concert – actually, a reception following a performance given at Dickinson College when Truman Bullard, several others and I are standing around, and I’ve just told this story about the Bruckner 9th.

Conductor Larry Newland, the music director of the symphony then, came up and Truman asked him what his most horrifying concert story was – and he proceeded to talk about this concert with the New York Philharmonic where he was the Assistant Conductor and had been in the broadcast booth, monitoring the recording they were making for their archives of this performance of Bruckner’s 9th Symphony.


When it got to the climactic chord and it cut off, there in his headset he could hear two women jabbering on. “Oh,” the one said, “I always fry mine in deep-fat.” They were discussing a recipe for making bean soup.

Same concert, same experience.

And really – you spend money on tickets to hear the New York Philharmonic play Bruckner’s 9th and you can’t wait till after the concert’s over to trade recipes??? And how annoying that the orchestra was playing so loud you practically had to shout so your friend could hear you…

It’s not just technology.

But with the advent of electronic devices which we can obliviously take into the concert hall with us, we increase the possibilities we can use to ruin an experience for everyone around us.

So when they ask you to “please, turn off all cell-phone, beepers, pagers and electronic devices” before the concert, please do that. A man almost got lynched by 2,000 people at Avery Fisher Hall the other night for just that reason.

Remember: turn off your cell-phone. The life you save may be your own!

- Dick Strawser

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