Worst. Audience. Ever.

We must have some kind of curse.  Having reported on Mahlergate, the infamous cellphone that interrupted the Ninth Symphony at the New York Philharmonic last month, we assumed that because of the law of averages, we wouldn’t get another cellphone interruption for a good long while.  How wrong we were.

But this time, the cellphone owner was sitting immediately to our right.

The Pittsburgh Symphony, conducted by Manfred Honeck, was on the stage of Avery Fisher Hall.  Amanda was covering the concert for Bachtrack (review coming here).  A few of our neighbors were of the type who don’t believe in daily showers or, shall we say, holding it in; the smell was annoying, but it comes with the territory sometimes.

Violinist Hilary Hahn had just started the lovely first phrase of Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto:


Then the phone went off.  A distinctive, tinkly old-fashioned ringtone, of the type you rarely hear these days.  As it rang, the owner just sat there, staring straight ahead as if paralyzed.  Finally, it occurred to him that it might be his phone.  He slowly took it out, at which point it stopped ringing.  He looked wonderingly at it, muttered something like “Hm!” and turned it off.  No one said a word to him afterward, in a tribute to the decorum that still reigns in concert halls.

By the way, the audience clapped after every movement, breaking another one of the so-called rules; Hahn politely nodded in response after the first movement.

Then came Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony.  The Pittsburghers’ burly brass section had cowed the audience into stunned silence during the first movement, so at the start of the slow movement, William Caballero’s beautifully toned horn solo was punctuated by hacking coughs from all around the house about every two bars.

And then came that tricky part in the last movement, where the orchestra lands with a terrific noise on a B-major chord, the dominant of the home key (E), followed by a pause before the orchestra starts the coda (in the home key), here starting at 1:15 (pause at 1:40):


If you’re really not paying attention, you might think this was the end.  But a sudden loud chord on the dominant makes no sense as an ending, when the whole symphony has been striving toward the home key.  Are we really so insensitive to tonal relationships that we can’t hear that?  Apparently, for this is a notorious trouble spot.  Today, people started clapping all over the house; Honeck just ignored them and kept conducting.

There’s a similar moment in Beethoven’s Ninth, here at 10:18, and having heard and sung this piece more than a few times, I’ve never heard any audience fooled by this one.


Erstwhile classical music reformers tell us that we need to get rid of the stuffy conventions of the concert hall.  Why bother?  Seems like that rulebook has already been thrown out the window.

–Michael

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Everyone likes classical music. Not everyone knows it yet.
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10 Responses to Worst. Audience. Ever.

  1. Joe says:

    By the way, the audience clapped after every movement, breaking another one of the so-called rules

    I’ve been to a couple of concerts where that happened, both of which were devoted exclusively to old chestnuts (one to Handel’s Messiah, the other to Beethoven’s 3rd and 7th Symphonies) and it distracted me so much that it got hard for me to appreciate the music. I can only guess that there was a critical mass of people in both audiences who had never been to such a concert before and didn’t know what the “rules” were.

    I’m all for building audiences, but I wonder if it would do any good to provide more pointers about concert etiquette. For example, I don’t think it would hurt if the audio announcements that precede most concerts nowadays didn’t just remind people to turn off electronic devices but also gently reminded them to withhold applause until the end of a particular work. Sure, some people would clap anyway, and the “false ending” problem would still be there for some, but I think an announcement of this kind would still do some good.

  2. Sneakeater says:

    Emanuel Ax and Alex Ross disagree:

    http://emanuelax.wordpress.com/2008/11/14/when-to-applaud/

    http://emanuelax.wordpress.com/2009/03/03/a-few-more-thoughts-on-applause-why-can-we-interrupt-at-the-met/

    http://alexrossmusic.typepad.com/files/rps_lecture_2010_alex-ross.pdf

    I should note that, as I was walking out of the Pittsburgh concert Sunday afternoon, I found to my horror that I had forgotten to turn my phone off after intermission. I don’t think I’ve ever done that before. Thank God I didn’t get any calls or texts! My call ring is exactly the kind that the person sitting next to Michael had. It would have been mortifying. (I did, however, smell wonderful.)

    • Thanks to you both for the comments–Joe for the suggestion on how to alert audiences, Sneakeater for the links. The Ross article in particular is thought-provoking, yet we can’t help thinking that for all his erudition, it’s not the last word. Stay tuned for a separate post on the clapping issue.

  3. Sneakeater says:

    Speaking of Joe’s suggestion on how to alert audiences, you should know that the guide to audience etiquette placed in obscure spots in Carnegie Hall program booklets DOES address the issue. It very specifically says that applause she be held to the end of the MOVEMENT — NOT the piece.

  4. Sneakeater says:

    Oops. That should have said, “should be held”.

  5. Joe says:

    Thanks also to Sneakeater for the thought-provoking links and the note on the Carnegie Hall program language – I’ve seen that and similar language elsewhere, but my sense is that very few people actually read those instructions, which is why I suggest audio announcements.

    I recognize that the history of applause during performances is long and complex and that the ‘right’ approach is subject to argument and controversy. I would also suggest, in response to the point that Alex Ross makes about enthusiasm, that there is a difference between applause as a spontaneous response to music well-written and well-played and applause offered simply because audience members take that to be the ‘expected’ or ‘polite’ response to what they’ve heard. (I’ve been to plenty of concerts at which I found the ‘polite’ applause to be too enthusiastic in view of the artistic quality of the performance, but that’s another story…)

    If we’re concerned with basic rules, I would argue that directing people to hold applause until the end of a piece is better than telling them to wait until the end of a movement. Why? Because end-of-movement applause can become very disruptive, particularly if the piece in question has a lot of relatively short movements. The Messiah performance that I mentioned above (New York Philharmonic, December 2008) is a good example: whenever there was a pause in the music – even after short recitatives – the audience burst into frantic applause. In context, it got to be really annoying and kept me from being able to focus on the performance, and I would rather that the audience members had all sat on their hands until the bitter end and then let loose.

    • Sneakeater says:

      Just to be clear, I agree with you, Joe, that the etiquette guide in the Carnegie Hall program booklets is hard to find. Indeed, it’s so hard to find that I can’t help but think that audience members could ONLY come upon it by accident. So you’re right that it’s inadequate as a means of giving any kind of behavioral guidance.

      I only noted it to show that Carnegie Hall, at least, appears to have come down on the side of “end of movement” rather than “end of piece” applause.

      I think this is a tough issue. I look forward to the separate post.

  6. yim says:

    i don’t think you need to worry about the stuffy atmosphere. its the natural ambience of the corpse-pallet. classical music has been dead for years. all we’re seeing now is the muscle twitches of its decaying flesh. which is captivating in its own way. yes.

    • Well, tell us about your last experience in a concert hall yim, and in what ways do you see classical music as dead? From my point of view as a singer, there’s still an awful lot of competition out there, so somebody is still doing it. This is not an attack, I really just want to see what your perspective is…

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