Concert, Interruptus: Planes, Phones, and Pagers

The best ways to ruin Mahler


Patron X is an executive in New York City. Patron X is a longtime fan and patron of the New York Philharmonic. Patron X attended a performance Tuesday night. Patron X brought his iPhone.

Patron X would go on to regret that.

Patron X -- that's the actual pseudonym The New York Times has given the poor fellow -- incited anger during the performance when, while seated in the front row of Avery Fisher Hall, his phone rang. Without him realizing it. Marimba after marimba after marimba, bafflingly, painfully, as the ire of audience and performers alike increased. Finally, conductor Alan Gilbert couldn't take it anymore, and halted the performance until the ringing stopped.

The Times dedicated two separate stories to MarimbaGate today, one on the news page and the other on the editorial. The lowly mobile phone interrupting the highest of art seems a perfect little metaphor for our moment. We want some places -- the dinner table, the concert hall -- to be kept sacred, which is to say, Marimba-free. But as the line between the digital world and the analog thins, it's becoming harder and harder to impose tech-free zones. As the conductor Jeffrey Siegel -- who had a 1981 performance of Schumann's "Fantasy in C (Op. 17)" interrupted by a rogue beeper -- explained, "people are simply too accustomed to hearing music everywhere as background and going about their business." Symphonic music, Siegel told the Times, ''is no longer the privilege of the concert hall.''

But! He said that in 1990. Life may be a bit beepier now than it used to be; other than that, though, not much is new. As thoroughly modern as Patron X's shaming seems to be, we'll always find ways to interrupt ourselves. And performers will always find themselves annoyed by their audiences and circumstances.

The Cough

The jazz pianist Keith Jarrett once stopped a performance in Montreal due to coughing.

''O.K., everybody cough,'' he said, and briefly left the stage. Evidently even that did not clear the air. Mr. Jarrett stopped again 15 minutes later to discuss the matter at greater length.

Another director used the power of peer pressure to finish his performance in peace.

Frustrated by what he called ''uncontrolled coughing'' during an intense moment in the third movement of the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony, Kurt Masur, the orchestra's music director, stopped the performance and left the stage.

Listeners who were equally annoyed by their neighbors' unmuted hacking applauded when he stepped off the podium. The coughers got the message too: When he returned about two minutes later, Mr. Masur was able to finish the concert in relative peace.

The Candy Wrapper

And then there's the celebrated conductor Misha Dichter, who once stopped a performance of Brahms' ''Handel Variations'' because he got annoyed at the noise of a candy wrapper.

''That's a sound like fingernails on a chalkboard for me,'' Dichter told The New York Times of the incident. ''Before I realized what was happening, I just stopped cold, looked at the audience and said, 'Will the person slowly unwrapping that candy stop immediately?' I couldn't even believe I had stopped; it was an involuntary response.'' Then, ''trembling with rage,'' he said, he returned to the beginning of the variation.

The Airplane

During a 1960 performance, conductor Leopold Stokowski halted a performance five different times while airplanes passed overhead.

Conductors at the Lewisohn Stadium generally try to ignore the passing airplanes. But, last night, Leopold Stokowski broke with precedent. He stopped the music five times.

The first plane interruption hardly mattered. It came just as the third movement of the Brahms Second Symphony had started. Mr. Stokowski merely motioned to the musicians to stop. Everyone waited for the drone of the plane to pass out of earshot, and Mr. Stokowski started the movement all over again. 

The three interruptions of Strauss' "Don Juan," however, were more disconcerting. When the first came, the tone poem was too far along to start the piece all over again; so the music merely was resumed at the place where Mr. Stokowski stopped it. During the second plane incident and the subsequent pause, there was also the wailing for a fire siren. 

The Whisper, the Seat-Fidget, the Under-the-Breath Hum, the Tinkling of Jewelry

In 1989, a survey conducted by the makers of Halls cough drops ranked the noise-based annoyances involved in the concert-going experience. These included the usual suspects -- whispering, coughing, sniffling -- but also some outliers: the humming-along of melodies, the clanking of heavy jewelry, the squeaks of fellow audience members fidgeting in their seats.

When asked the best means of eliminating such noise pollution, Los Angeles concertgoers suggested throwing offenders off the balcony or cutting their ears off. Their St. Louis counterparts leaned toward decapitation or banishment to Siberia, or better yet, to a rock concert.

Others suggested less drastic though embarrassing methods -- from equipping each seat with a red bulb that would light up each time an individual made excessive noise, to having ushers hand all offenders a note stating that they are annoying everyone around them.

Image: Reuters.