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Classical Notes

"Please, turn off all electronic devices!"

Posted at 1:47 PM on January 11, 2012 by Samuel Kjellberg (9 Comments)

electronic punishment.jpg


We have all experienced it before: the clanging cell phone piercing its way between the middle of a concert, followed by the whispering shuffle as everyone is trying to locate the perpetrator. It seems so interesting that these interruptions still occur considering the massive amounts of "Please, turn off all electronic devices" that surround the concert-goer's experience.


Classical music and its musicians have not been well-prepared for this. We don't have ancient treatises' for conductors and musicians that explain a counteraction to the rude disturbance, our editions can't seem to catch up to the trends. The electronic device is a new demon lurking at the concert halls and has been dealt with in a multitude of ways.


Well, one such disturbance happened in outrageous form last night during a New York Philharmonic concert at Avery Fischer Hall. This time it was not lightly brushed aside but was confronted in full-force by Maestro Alan Gilbert.


The orchestra was playing Gustav Mahler's 9th Symphony, an extremely important piece, not only for Mahler himself, but for the orchestra because of their close relationship with Mahler during the last years of his life.


Imagine this... Fourth movement. About 85 minutes into a 90 minute work. Orchestra at a pianissimo. Quieting down from a climax into serenity; a sighing breath from the Mahler storm. All are transcendent into what can only be described as the "Ecstasy of Mahler." Then, about 15 measures until the final page turn... CUE: Marimba cell-phone ringtone...


Mahler did not write for marimba. In fact, the marimba hadn't even made its way into any radar of any classical composer at the time. This confused Gilbert and when it did not cease, it upset him.

Gilbert stopped the orchestra, turned to the man, who happened to be in the front row and had this conversation:

"Are you finished?"

No Response.

"Fine, we'll wait."

Audience chimes in: "Thousand dollar fine!" "Get out!" "Kick him out!"

"Did you turn it off?"

Man nods.

"It won't go off again?"

Man shook his head.


After a final apologetic address to the audience he turned to the orchestra and asked them to start at 118. They finished the symphony in glorious fashion!


Of course, this is only one way to counteract such a disturbance. Perhaps Alan Gilbert was a little harsh. Perhaps he was right on the money. Perhaps the man in the front row had a wife in labor, or in the hospital, or any other possible emergencies that would need immediate contact. You could say, "Well, why are you at a concert then?" But, keep in mind he had a front row seat; those seats can cost well over $120, on an easy night.


Either way, the epidemic of electronic device disturbance is becoming an issue. So, I want to ask you: "How do you think these sorts of disturbances should be dealt with?"


Please, leave a comment. Let's get this conversation going! Maybe, with enough input, we could write that treatise that all conductors have been waiting to read.


Comments (9)

A disturbance such as this should be written into law as a city infraction, as it quite literally disturbs the peace. (piece?) A publicly-levied $1,000 fine and a year's ban from the hall are appropriate punishments, given the value of time wasted -- time of musicians and patrons alike.

Posted by Dan Adams | January 11, 2012 3:04 PM


The obvious solution is to permit concert venues to employ devices which negate cell phone signals within the hall, accompanied by signage informing patrons that they are entering a cell phone 'dead zone'. As much as I see the appeal of Mr. Adams' approach, that fact is that it can only be applied after the performance has been ruined for thousands of people.

Posted by J. Hawley | January 12, 2012 5:43 AM


Well, the second comment above seems more practical overall -- unless we institute an airlines screening type search upon entry to the hall and have all devices surrendered until departure! (Of course, on the other hand, if John Cage were around he would be loving it!)

Posted by John Akins | January 12, 2012 11:47 AM


When a cell phone went off in our recent choir concert (luckily between pieces), our director turned in that direction, said nothing and waited for the ringing to stop.
More conductors need to do this so attendees will get the reinforcement of potential humiliation to get them to turn off their devices.
In a previous concert, an audience member was actually talking on the phone while we sang. I was shocked and furious.

Posted by Claire in St. Paul | January 12, 2012 12:48 PM


Claire's comment about someone actually talking on a cell phone during a concert is just further illustration of how self-centered Americans have become.

Posted by Norma | January 13, 2012 4:20 PM


I think that making the auditorium a dead cell-phone area is a good idea. Folks don't always listen to instructions.

Posted by Karen Sandberg | January 13, 2012 8:28 PM


I read that the fellow was in his 60s and had those front row seats for 20 years. His age probably explains part of why it took him so long to turn the thing off. He was mortified and apologized by phone to Gilbert.

Phones aren't the only reason a conductor stops. For a cough at the wrong moment I've seen Osmo Vanska stop, start again, stop, implore the audience and start again. He also doesn't allow drinks in the auditorium because of the noise of ice. Sarah Hicks and other conductors at MN Orch are ok with ice apparently.

Posted by Jill in Minnetonka | January 16, 2012 1:24 PM


Not only is the idea of blocking cell phone signals a good idea, but is quite affordable. For the price of a few of those front row seat tickets, an orchestral hall could permanently end the problem by installing cell jammers. Presumably most concert goers would support this, particularly the potential offenders themselves, who would be saved the embarrassment.

Posted by Marcus H. | January 17, 2012 11:20 AM


Blocking is a bit harsh. I'd have not gone to concerts for the 12 years where my kids needed babysitters. I turned my ring and vibration off, and checked the phone between pieces. Sometimes I had to run to the lobby to help with something. But the ability to enjoy a concert, even with 2 not easy children at home, helped to keep me sane.
There will always be someone who forgets, I'm afraid, but don't 'throw the baby out with the bath water." Those 12 years were several thousand dollars of tickets, and not often to sold out concerts, either.

Posted by Sonja | January 22, 2012 12:07 AM