the orchestra world

going postal on cellphones

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 …


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.


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