I don’t care what they say as long as they talk about me.
In a way, it’s great that that shlimazel’s iPhone happened to go off at such a sweet spot in Mahler’s Ninth on Tuesday. All of us—the authors included (here’s our eyewitness account and here’s our review of the actual music)—got to exercise some righteous indignation, schadenfreude, and the adrenaline rush of watching a fight. But at the end of the day—we’re guessing Friday, tops—everyone will move on. Classical music fans to the next concert, gossipers to the next juicy story, and full-time blog commentators to the next random story where their snark will be closer to the top of the pile.
Who loses? Mahler.
After this kerfuffle, it’s impossible to talk about the actual music, just as it was impossible for listeners to return to the symphony’s transcendent stillness after the cellphone. The viral coverage has all been about the damn phone, with nary a pixel spent on what came before or after.
Maybe the guy was hard of hearing (he was elderly) and didn’t understand what was happening. Maybe he didn’t know how to use his iPhone. Maybe he just froze in terror. Maybe he’s just rude and narcissistic. We’ll never know. [UPDATE: Now we do, thanks to Norman Lebrecht's reporting here.]
Many commenters, on this blog and elsewhere, have interesting ideas about what to do with cellphones in concerts. We’re interested in a different issue, raised by those who tell us to lighten up, don’t understand the fuss, and think we’re snobby. We’ve been thinking about what hard work it is to sit in a concert hall and listen to concert music–and why music lovers, ourselves included, get so upset when the rules are broken.
Even if your prospective customer loves classical music, we’re asking her to dress in uncomfortable clothes, sit tight with strangers, try not to be distracted by the inevitable hacks, bleeps, burps, snores, and shuffles around her, surrender to a performance that might or might not succeed for so many reasons, and pay in the neighborhood of $100 for the privilege. Can she also get a free download or play with her new tech device? Forget it.
Should it be that way?
Seems like there are three points of view here. First, there are the true believers, who follow Dimitri Mitropoulos’s dictum that “a good audience listens hard.” These folks love every note being played. For them, classical music is a temple, and its composers are gods—requiring reverential silence so that the magic can happen. Dare to suggest to these true believers that they ought to lighten up, and they’ll explode in rage—because their deities are being desecrated by people who aren’t of the faith.
Then there’s the newbie, the outsider who has a passing interest in classical music, but feels put off by the priestly atmosphere. (One of them was at the Mahler concert.) He’s probably heard some recordings or has a friend who plays an instrument, and likes what he hears, but hasn’t sat through a concert since he was in elementary school. So he shows up to the Philharmonic, sees all these stuffed shirts and bald heads…and then this big kerfuffle about a simple accident that could happen to anybody. This only confirms our newbie’s sense that classical music is snobbish.
Finally, there are the reformers, telling us that classical music has to throw off its stuffy ways to save itself. These people point to the fact that audiences for Handel’s operas felt free to talk over the music, eat and drink, and wander in and out as they please. But should we? That would be grossly ahistorical. Audiences may have been more relaxed in Handel’s day, but not in Mahler’s or Britten’s—and their music reflects those expectations. So twitter-seats, open doors, refreshments, and freedom to call, text, and chatter aren’t all-purpose solutions to the problem.
How can we keep all these people happy? The Mahler episode demonstrates that certain repertoire just demands silence. But that doesn’t mean that all repertoire needs to be approached in the same way, or that social media and relaxed etiquette can never coexist with classical music.
Maybe concerts should be labeled like yoga classes: beginner, intermediate, and advanced. For people who aren’t ready to sit down in reverential silence, there are concerts in the parks, or concerts in bars (now increasing, and that’s a good thing). Intermediate concerts might involve a loud, bangy piano concerto, that keeps the audience enraptured through sheer shock and awe. Advanced? Mahler 9. Zen-like concentration, and commensurate emotional reward.
[UPDATE: In a comment below, Mark Berry, one of the leading commentators on the London classical music scene, puts the issue beautifully: "If one has not acquired the habit of listening, then one may have to work hard to do so, but what wonderful work it is." We couldn't agree more. It's not a matter of old-school self-discipline: it’s a matter of abandoning yourself to the music and letting it dictate your responses. We’re wondering, in a world of constant multi-tasking where this kind of thinking and feeling becomes increasingly rare, how classical musicians and their institutions can do practical work to help people learn this habit—and more importantly, persuade them that it’s a wonderful habit to have.]
–Amanda and Michael