I really hadn’t planned to continue this series, but more questionable behavior in the classical music world has given us a third installment. Today’s subject – audience noise at concerts and the out of proportion reactions it provokes from performers.

Nowadays, concert audiences are expected to be quiet, and any small disturbance by a patron can draw glares from their neighbors. It wasn’t always this way, as I’ve pointed out in previous posts – audiences used to be a lot rowdier. In any case, the “sit down and shut up” model of concert etiquette prevails now.

I am not against this entirely – it’s hard to play your best with a lot of ambient noise. I have also been momentarily distracted by some really out of bounds behavior in the audience – at one chamber music concert I played, an audience member opened up his newspaper (loudly) and read the entire time we played!

However, some recent reactions from high-profile performers to disturbances in the crowd suggest that maybe the desire for quiet has gotten a little out of hand (it sometimes makes me think of the Cone of Silence from Get Smart, above right).

Recently, violinist Kyung Wha Chung made a comeback from a long absence from the concert stage – an injury decades ago forced her to leave behind a very high profile career as a soloist. This was a really nice story, and I was very happy to read about her perseverance in an article in the New York Times in the days before the concert. However, what should have been a joyful occasion was spoiled – here’s the headline:

Violinist’s Comeback Recital Halted By Outburst at Coughing Child

Apparently, there was a lot of coughing during the first movement of a Mozart sonata, and at its conclusion, Chung put her violin under her arm and looked at the child, indicating she would not continue until the coughing stopped. When it did, she is reported to have said to the parents, coldly: “Maybe bring her back when she’s older.” I wouldn’t bet on it – if I were that kid, I’d need a lot of convincing to ever set foot in a concert hall again. And I really hope she wasn’t an aspiring violinist!

You can read about the incident here. Critics who were there talked about the amount of coughing (a lot), and reminded their readers that Chung was under great pressure, giving her first public performance in many years. Doesn’t convince me she had the right to do what she did, but I agree it’s worth mentioning.

The article also recalls a similar incident a couple of months ago at an New World Symphony concert, where conductor Michael Tilson Thomas addressed a woman in the audience whose child was sleeping. Audience members say he asked the mother to leave, while Tilson Thomas claimed that he only asked her to change seats, as her patting the girl’s head was distracting. In any case, they left, and again, I’d be surprised if they ever came back.

There are many other recent examples of such imperious behavior in a very good article by New York Times critic Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim. The grand prize goes to Andras Schiff, whose playing I really admire, but whose people skills seem to need work – to a coughing audience member, he said: “I am giving you a gift – don’t spoil it.” Please.

The article also offers some examples of much better reactions from the stage  – my favorite is New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert turning, smiling broadly and waving goodbye to two women sneaking out of a concert in between movements. The audience laughed – it must have been a nice change for them!

There are many people who say that absolute silence is required to truly appreciate the nuances of a performance, and I won’t argue that it is nice to have. However, most of the works we treat so reverentially were written long before audiences were expected to be so quiet! If Mozart expected noise when he performed his music (read my post about this here), maybe Kyung Wha Chung could live with some coughing when she plays it.

Many people already view the classical music world as pompous and overly serious, and it takes so little to fix that – a few words from the stage before a concert begins, or telling a story about the origins of a piece, or even just a bad joke are all that’s needed to break the ice! Make an effort, and please don’t act like people who paid to hear you are getting in the way – they are the reason you’re up there in the first place!

So, performers – an early New Year’s resolution proposal – in 2015, let’s behave more like Alan Gilbert, and less like Andras Schiff and Kyung Wha Chung!

Share This