Mahlergate: the moral of the story is…?

I don’t care what they say as long as they talk about me.
–Tallulah Bankhead

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

About thousandfoldecho

Everyone likes classical music. Not everyone knows it yet.
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15 Responses to Mahlergate: the moral of the story is…?

  1. herchu says:

    While weddings have the same legal bounds wherever they are celebrated it’s ridiculous to entrance in Saint Patrick under an Elvis costume. There are Albert Hall winter evenings and there are Central Park summer noons. Dress and behave accordingly and enjoy all.

    • senseantisense says:

      I agree, dress accordingly and act accordingly. I don’t get to the see/hear a concert often and I’m a newbie but I know to keep quiet so others and I can enjoy it. I’m not at all complaining about the price, it’s just that I can rarely afford it so why would I want to have it ruined or ruin it for others?

      As for walking around and coming and going, people can go to those types of places where that’s expected. I’m sure there are places that allow a loud audience at a Shakespeare performance for that “authentic” feel.

      • Sarah says:

        Check out a sexy bollywood movie on opening night in india… whistles, and hoots and hollers abound!

        And I just came back form a classical Indian music concert, and folks not only let their phones ring, but they answered them and had a lengthy conversation! Oh, culture… makes “Dressing and acting accordingly”, an interesting game!

  2. Thank you for a thoughtful, considered article post-’Mahlergate’. It is a shame that amid the furore about the rogue mobile phone, there don’t seem to be any reviews in the blogosphere of the actual music!

    I agree that music and the places where music is performed should be sacred. I was at a concert at London’s excellent Wigmore Hall 18 months ago, given by the Jerusalem Quartet, which was interrupted continually by pro-Palestinian protesters. The protests were vociferous and disruptive, but they were not aggressive. The musicians remained calm throughout: first, they simply stopped playing. By the third interruption, they just left the stage and returned after the protester had been removed. But it was the reaction of the audience which astonished me: the Wigmore audience is usually very elderly, and yet some of the patrons reacted like young thugs. A man sitting just ahead of me, a perfectly civilised looking person in a navy jumper, grabbed the woman sitting next to me (a protester) by the hand and dragged her out of her seat, while shouting “Shut up shut up! You stupid woman!”.

    The whole incident was very unsettling: politics invading what I (and many others) consider to be a “hallowed space”. These days, we need places like concert halls, libraries and art galleries to retreat to.

    Let’s not be too hard on people whose phones go off in a concert, or a gallery, or a library – or indeed any other “sacred space”. It could happen to any of us, and I don’t doubt that the person on Tuesday night is feeling utterly mortified and ashamed to hold his head up in public.

    • Thanks for your comments. We agree it’s a pity that no one’s talking about the actual music–they should, since one of the pro reviews was extremely critical of Gilbert’s interpretation. We’ll post a review of our own shortly.
      Have you read Mark Berry’s reports and thought-provoking reflections on the Jerusalem Quartet episode? They’re at his blog Boulezian (on our blogroll). And then there’s the uproar over the Israel Philharmonic at the Proms last summer; much commentary on Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc (also on our blogroll).

  3. Sneakeater says:

    Mahler isn’t the one who suffered most in this episode. It was Ades. From all the press, you’d never have any idea that there was also a significant New York premier on that program.

    • Excellent point. Will try to help rectify this in our next post. Might want to look at the reviews of the Thursday concert in the New York Times and Classical Source for comments on the Ades.

  4. Mark Berry says:

    First, thank you for mentioning my report (and blog): I am flattered! Thank you also for the excellent account of what happened on this occasion. I was thinking a little about the two incidents. Whilst the Wigmore protest was unnerving and, I think, wrongheaded, I did not feel unambiguously angry about it. Those participating were trying, at least, to bring attention to a cause in which they believed – and for which most of us have a great deal of sympathy, to put it mildly. They were unambiguously wrong to target the players, whose response I admired enormously, but the protestors’ acts were entirely different in kind from people who selfishly fail to attend to their telephones, who cough, who talk: that is, those sociopaths who straightforwardly act with no consideration for others. I should be quite happy to see the latter class banned/fined/ritually humiliated/whatever… What it comes down to is that it is simply not possible to listen properly to great music when such distractions take place – and no one has the right to deprive others of that opportunity. 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; one certainly will not acquire it by being told that it is somehow acceptable to disturb the concentration of others, let alone flagrantly to refuse to turn off a telephone when requested to do so by the conductor.

    • Many thanks for your comments, and your first-rate reporting on the London concert scene, which we’ve been following for quite a while now.
      I just put a quote from your comment in the main post above: “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.” Couldn’t have said it better ourselves.
      We’ve been struggling with this issue for some time. You’re absolutely right that this is a matter of basic respect for the music and musicians, and even more, simple human civility. And I was deeply rattled by the cellphone incident because I love this music so much.
      But I’ll be the first to confess that it took me a long time to learn how to really listen, with concentration, committing myself totally to the music before me. I imagine it’s going to be much harder for the internet generation, used to multi-tasking and constantly using their cellphones, and I don’t know how classical musicians, hoping to sustain their audiences, are going to be able to avoid this dilemma.
      Maybe one place to start is to show people that it is “wonderful work”: that a lifetime of concentrated, committed listening yields immeasurable rewards.

  5. lesterhunt says:

    Ticket holders have a right to enjoy a concert without disturbance — a right for which they have paid and in some cases can ill afford. Reasonable use of force against those who violate this right is fully justified, in my opinion.

    • Tifoso says:

      I totally agree with lesterhunt. So many of the comments, and even many of the “let’s be nice” arguments in the blog itself seem to think that the only beneficiary or victim of my behavior at a concert is I myself. It seems to have become the rule that individual preferences, habits, and behavior in public must not be condemned by people who are offended. I was present at the Mahler concert in question, and I can say that the idiot with the telephone wasn’t the only offender with techy toys. One thing about great music is that it temporarily unites the disparate members of its audience into a community bound together by transcendent beauty. People who don’t want to experience great art should stay at home and watch TV.

  6. Sneakeater says:

    The problem, though, is that as Norman Lebrecht has confirmed, this wasn’t purposive bad conduct. The guy didn’t even forget to turn his cell phone off. He just didn’t know that, even if you turn off an iPhone, pre-set alarms will STILL ring.

    You know what? Until this became a cause celebre yesterday, I didn’t know that either. And neither, apparently, does everybody on the internet who assumes the guy must have neglected to turn off his phone, because otherwise this couldn’t have happened.

    So, this could have happened to EVERYONE who is seriously criticizing this guy, because they ALL seem ignorant — like him and me at the relevant time — of the fact that the alarm could still ring when the phone is turned off.

    Could the guy have handled it better? Sure. Once he saw the problem (and that he wasn’t sure how to silence the alarm), he should have left the auditorium. But I could see how he might have froze.

    Everybody wants to turn this into this instance of horrible antisocial behavior. When at worst, it’s an instance of technology becoming too complicated for most of us as users.

    Maestro Gilbert handled it the right way. But I see no need to vilify the cell phone owner.

    • One of the most sensible things I’ve read on this whole episode. When I left the hall and wrote the first blog entry, we were rattled and annoyed at what happened. Now that we know more, it appears to have been just a terribly unfortunate accident. Still, it should get us thinking about what concert hall etiquette should be in a changing world.
      By the way, turning the iPhone completely off (by holding down the sleep/wake button until the red slider button appears, and then sliding the slider) will disable all alarms. But silencing the phone using the ringer button (above the volume controls) apparently won’t. This must be the mistake that was made.

      • Sneakeater says:

        Thanks. I’ve been thinking about the overly hostile reaction to this event, to a small extent in the hall and to a larger extent in the blogosphere.

        At first, I wanted to attribute it to the sanctimoniousness of the mainstream classical music audience, which enjoys thinking that it’s (a) a besieged minority that is (b) morally superior to its besiegers. Combined, perhaps, with a general generational fear and loathing of new communications technologies.

        But the more I thought about it, the more I thought it’s something different (and, happily, more benign). It’s more comforting to believe that this was some kind of purposive bad behavior because, in that case, you can try to prevent it in the future. Ban the guy from future Philharmonic concerts (it’s nice that’s now a punishment — during the Maazel era it might have been a kindness). Impose a thousand dollar fine. All these things would scare future audience members from neglecting to make sure their phones are turned off at the start of the concert and following intermission.

        But if — as turned out to be the case — this was an accident that could befall almost anybody ignorant of the full workings of their cell phone, then there’s nothing you can do to prevent its recurrence. Now that the truth has come out, blog commentators are screaming that it’s irresponsible to take a cell phone into a concert hall without full knowledge of how it operates. Come on. Have they ever seen how paltry Apple’s written instructions are? And even for other companies that give you full instructions, they’re saying that they themselves wouldn’t take a cell phone into a concert hall without having studied the full instruction booklet in detail? That they’ve done so for their phones now? To state that contention is to refute it.*

        And that’s the problem. Nobody wants this to be a problem without a solution. Nobody wants this to be something that will just happen on occasion, nobody’s fault and nothing to be done about it. But it is.

        * Some commentators are calling for a requirement that audience members check in their cellphones before entering a concert hall. There are so many reasons that will never happen, it’s hard to believe they’re serious.

  7. I’m enjoying the idea that concerts could (should??) be labeled like yoga classes … but let me ask this: is it necessary that the repertoire be changed based on the class? That is, breaking from the yoga metaphor, all three levels of concert could offer the same repertoire, but different affordances.
    The “beginner” concert could present a pre-performance chat before each work, sample of the music played with narration, a casual dress code and tweet-friendly zones of seats. The “expert” level would be that hard-working audience of acolytes, and the “intermediate” … well, something in between (we can work out the details if you accept the concept).
    I think that would do “beginner” audiences more good than giving them only jangly poppy music–that is, it’s better than assuming that they’re not capable of enjoying “hard” music. And it would certainly satisfy the acolytes to enter the church only with other true believers (or those who had graduated to their level). After all, even in a beginner yoga class, the students are exposed to the “performance” by a master teacher, who may demonstrate the advanced technique before teaching the modified, simpler version.

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