Wednesday, January 11, 2012

We're not kidding when we say "silence your phones" at a concert

Last night, at the New York Philharmonic, the final performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 9 had an extra performer: a persistent ringing iPhone. According to several eyewitness reports (see the comments as well), a patron in the left front of the hall near the stage neglected to silence their phone and then paid no heed as it rang and rang with an alarm throughout the last movement of the symphony. Music Director Alan Gilbert broke protocol and stopped the orchestra, admonished the concertgoer, who by this time had figured out how to turn off their phone or otherwise stop the alarm, then apologized to the audience before resuming the symphony.

Mr. Kinchen discussed the audience's reaction to the ringing phone. After Gilbert stopped the orchestra, some people in the hall shouted "get out!" "throw them out!" and "Turn off the phone!" Mr. Kinchen took issue with the reaction, suggesting that it was disproportionate to the severity of the offense:

Whoever had owned the phone had made an honest mistake, one that just about anyone else in the audience could possibly have made, yet here, at Lincoln Center, listening to The Symphony, this violation was enough to draw the ire and ill will of hundreds of people. Sophisticated people who had come for a night of culture and music and proceeded to be reduced, for a few moments, to the early stages of an angry mob.
In the name of keeping with the etiquette of this classy and cultured event, these people got so worked up they were actually shouting, not cursing mind you, for that would be uncultured, but shouting angrily. And when Gilbert finally dealt with the situation, the response was the cathartic release of pent up aggression. Blatant, almost animal aggression, at the symphony, over a ringing phone. Maybe I’m new to the whole symphony culture but to me it seemed a bit much. 

I wasn't there, so my comments are based on what I've read above. As a musician and an audience member, there is nothing that offends me more than a disruptive noise during a concert. When I'm performing, a noise such as a ringing phone distracts me and breaks my concentration. I'm certain it does the same thing for my fellow musicians, who are all trying to hear each other and play together as an ensemble. As an audience member, it's even worse. I listen to recorded classical music at work, on the subway, and at home. I'm used to interruptions such as answering the phone, talking to my co-workers, cats breaking things, etc. But when I go to a performance in a concert hall, I've spent money for an uninterrupted musical experience. For two hours, I get the enjoyment of classical music without the distractions of phone calls, Twitter, people talking about work, and so on.

When a phone rings during a concert, that's intrusive not just to the musicians who are working so hard to put on the best performance possible, but to the audience that has paid money to enjoy a concert in near-silence. That's why the Philharmonic has Alec Baldwin remind everyone to silence cell phones and other electronic devices. It's not just for the musicians, it's for the audience as well. And that means everyone. How hard is it to turn off your phone for two hours? If you can't live without your phone being on and available, maybe you shouldn't go to a classical music concert.

As for the audience reaction, I agree with Mr. Kinchen that some of the shouts from the crowd seem to have been excessive. I'm sure that they came from people like myself who would be offended that a ringing phone disturbed their intimate musical experience. But that doesn't mean you should shout out things like "get out!" and "thousand dollar fine!" There's a certain level of decorum we should maintain at concerts and while one person clearly ignored that by leaving their phone on, that's no excuse for the mob mentality that comes with the anger at the disruption. There's no need for angry shouts. I doubt that the crowd would have turned on that patron physically, although there was a brawl in the balcony at a Boston Pops concert a few years ago. In any case, let's try to remain calm even in our anger.

I do approve of Gilbert's reaction to the patron: abject humiliation. If it had been me sitting there, I would have been so mortified that I might not ever return to Avery Fisher Hall. I'm going back on Friday night and my phone will most definitely be turned off long before Alec Baldwin reminds me.

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