I just became aware of this video from the New York Philharmonic’s Young People’s Concerts. It was filmed in 1966. Leonard Bernstein introduces the conductor for Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition – the young James DePreist (he was 30 years old at the time). It’s amazing to see all the mannerisms that I grew to love (and some not so much) nearly 30 years later when I joined the Oregon Symphony. What a remarkable and beautiful human being he was.
You’ve no doubt heard by now about the cellphone stare-down at the New York Philharmonic’s recent performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony between music director Alan Gilbert and a stubborn cellphone user in the front rows of Avery Fisher Hall. I was reading some of the comments to both the original blog posting about the incident and the New York Times blog posting (which now has over 150 comments), and I thought I’d expound a bit on just why an interruption of this sort is such a big deal to those of us who care about classical music in a live setting.
Symphonic performances are an immersive sensory experience. There is something special about the shared experience of listening to great music with hundreds or thousands of fellow music lovers. And in certain pieces of music, there is an almost cathartic, collective, and spiritual sense which overtakes everyone in the room. The final movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony exemplifies this type of musical event. It is 25 minutes of the deepest and most touching music ever composed, and at its close there is an unbelievably soft and exposed section of music that literally dissolves from hearing at the very end. If the performance has been a good one, then the entire audience will literally be transported as one to a place that, through the miracle of music, Mahler was only able to go to in solitude in the depths of his feelings and artistic sensibilities as a master composer. Audience, orchestra, and conductor will literally be almost holding their breath as these long, terrible fragile lines extend into a realm beyond our understanding as rational human beings. The flow of time slows, then almost stops …
RING, RING! RING, RING! RING, RING! RING, RING!
It’s all ruined.
There’s no way that you can get that feeling back. You were in that magical realm between waking and dreaming, conscious and subconscious, and now you’re thinking of the Verizon man saying “Can you hear me now?” Everything that you went to the concert hall to escape has suddenly intruded into your innermost thoughts. Some person just shat on your entire evening.
Tell me that’s not a big deal.
Imagine you’re at an NBA game and it comes down to a tie game with a foul shot in the final seconds to determine the winner. Suddenly, a fan runs onto the court and sprays the foul shooter with a fire extinguisher. That would really spoil the moment, wouldn’t it? People would no doubt complain, I’d wager. Or imagine that you’re at an incredible rock concert. It’s the song that the entire crowd has been waiting for, and someone pulls the plug right before the climax of the song. All the instruments go dead. I’d imagine there would be many, many chagrined fans in that situation, too. It’s disheartening that just by virtue of being classical concertgoers, our upset is considered illegitimate, and worthy of ridicule. So it’s gratifying to see more like-minded people speaking up in the comments sections of various online articles in support of the actions of both the conductor and the upset patrons. What do you think?
UPDATE: The New York Times has interviewed Patron X, who was the culprit, who was of course mortified by the whole thing – and explains that the kerfuffle happened because he had a new company-supplied cell phone with an alarm already set. Seems plausible.
With the looming labor actions possible in the major orchestras of Seattle and Cleveland, it makes me wonder if there will be a shift in the largest budget level orchestras in this country. With the Big Five (now the Big Seven) orchestras in a Reagan-era arms race to maintain salary parity with each other (you can discern from the graph at Adaptistration that three of these orchestras are managing to continue their continual rise in pay levels, while the others are falling away to some extent) you’ve got to wonder where this will end. Cleveland is in a unique situation – it’s a smaller city by far than the others in the top tier, and may have a fundraising base that is similarly sized by comparison. Yet their salaries continue to rise. It’s not that they don’t deserve commensurate pay rates, the Cleveland Orchestra is one of the best in the world. The New York Philharmonic will have added $8 million to its deficit by the end of next season, according to estimates, with $4 million of that coming from the 09-10 season alone. Seattle is in a position where they are essentially rudderless, and with a lame duck music director and executive director (hand-picked by the MD), it must be harder for them to raise badly-needed funds on a consistent basis (aside from the end of year ‘messiah’ gifts from one of the deep pocketed mega-donors). Will Cleveland and Seattle end up like an over-zealous home buyer who got a jumbo loan with an adjustable rate and now finds themselves ‘upside down’ with their costs outstripping their ability to earn? I very much hope not.