For those who say that the concert hall needs to loosen up, who want tweet-seats and more technology, be careful what you wish for.
Until today I’ve never been to a concert where a cellphone stopped the orchestra in the middle of a piece, but now I can check that awful milestone off the list. I’ll try to record it as accurately as I can, with my still-jangling nerves.
It was in the fourth movement. (Funny how these disturbances never happen in fortissimo passages.) After the last climax, as the movement begins to wind down, toward that sublime last page of the score where music and silence are almost indistinguishable. In other words, just about the worst possible moment. (After a quick check of my Dover score, I think it was about 13 bars before the last Adagissimo.) [UPDATE: commenters have pointed out that the phone was ringing in louder passages earlier in the movement.]
When we reached that passage, as Alan Gilbert turned to the first violins and the sound grew ever more hushed and veiled, the unmistakable chimes of the iPhone Marimba ringtone resounded loud and clear throughout Avery Fisher Hall. (Checked on my iPhone afterward to confirm which one it was.) And it kept on ringing, and ringing. Gilbert kept on conducting for a few bars, but unbelievably, the sound kept on going.
(Doesn’t this guy have voicemail?) [UPDATE: turns out the problem wasn't a phone call but a pre-set alarm, and this really was an unfortunate accident caused by a bizarre iPhone quirk; more in the updates below.]
Of all places, the offender was sitting in the very front row, center section, on the aisle (stage right). In other words, right in front of the concertmaster.
Finally, Gilbert dropped his hands and stopped the orchestra, turned to the offender, and looked at him. To everyone’s disbelief, the sound just kept on going, and going. Someone shouted, “Thousand dollar fine.”
Gilbert said something like, “Are you finished?” The guy didn’t move a muscle. Gilbert: “Fine. We’ll wait.” And he turned to the podium and lay down his baton.
As the marimba kept on clanging, someone shouted, “Kick him out!” Another echoed. Some started to clap. But then others shushed the hall down, preventing pandemonium from erupting.
Finally, it stopped. Gilbert: “Did you turn it off?” The guy nodded. Gilbert: “It won’t go off again?” Another nod. Gilbert turned to the audience, and said, “Ordinarily in disturbances like these, it’s better not to stop, since stopping is worse than the disturbance. But this was so egregious, that . . .” (I lost his words here), and the audience burst into boisterous applause.
Gilbert turned to the orchestra, said “Number 118,” and started up again, at the point where the trombones enter fortissimo for the last big climax. I wish I could say you could have heard a pin drop from then on, but there were a few coughers; this is New York, after all. Still, there was a palpable sense of tension from orchestra and audience, as Mahler’s Ninth finally found its way home.
[UPDATE: I want to clarify that aside from the three shouts I quoted above, the audience was relatively restrained in its reaction; you could sense that people were upset, but they kept themselves under control, and actually shushed the few shouters so that Gilbert could deal effectively with the situation. This wasn't the concert-hall equivalent of road rage. Another account at Superconductor corroborates what I saw and heard; see also WQXR's Naomi Lewin here, and two other eyewitness accounts here and here. Go to Norman Lebrecht's indispensable Slipped Disc (see our blogroll) for some interesting comments on this episode.]
[UPDATE II: We've been overwhelmed at how far this post has travelled! While you're here, since you do like classical music, check out Amanda's Baroque ensemble. You can make music happen beyond what a like or a tweet can do!]
[UPDATE III: Our initial reflections on the meaning of this episode, here, and our review of the actual music-making--with quotations from another very negative review--here. A CNN reporter contacted us earlier Thursday, and the story is here. Finally, this episode has--sadly and predictably--sparked snarky and inapposite commentary on classical music's snobbery, here.]
[UPDATE IV: Alan Gilbert comments on the episode to the Wall Street Journal here. And Norman Lebrecht--who else?--has unearthed new information about the iPhone owner here. Apparently he is a long-time subscriber who actually had silenced his iPhone, but didn't know that doing so fails to disable preset clock alarms (I didn't know that either). We applaud Lebrecht for not releasing his name. The iPhone owner has spoken to the New York Times here. Lebrecht has also posted a hilarious video from one of his readers, Eduardo Strasser, that gives you a sense of what it was like, here.]