On the Issue of Cell Phones in Concert Halls…Lessons from New York

I was in the cello section of an orchestra the first time I heard Mahler’s 9th Symphony. As our rehearsal wound down, the symphony’s closing moments had me in tears.

Mahler’s 9th is an emotional portrait of a composer struggling with his own mortality. It begins with what Leonard Bernstein said is a sonic representation of Mahler’s irregular heartbeat and Bernstein felt that the music is meant to depict “death in the midst of life.” In the final movement, Mahler says “farewell” in heart-wrenching fashion. The 25-minute finale was composed after the death of his daughter and the diagnosis of his eventually fatal heart disease. The music ends with tiny shards of barely audible notes all in the upper strings. The final note is marked “ersterbend”–“dying away.” In performance, this is a musical moment so powerful it leaves me crumpled in a heap on the floor.

This makes what happened last night at the New York Philharmonic particularly shocking. During those final moments of near-silence a cell phone rang. And rang. And rang. Until New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert stopped the performance and addressed the patron who was seated in the front row and had, stunningly, made no attempt to silence his phone.

You can read multiple accounts of the incident from various audience members. New Yorker critic Alex Ross weighed in, so did NPR, by midday the New York Times had published a story with Alan Gilbert’s reaction to the incident. Links to the story and analyses of it have been flying through my Twitter feed all day. The tone ranges from the fierce vitriol of classical diehards to more casual classical listeners asking everyone to just please lighten up.

A year ago I traveled with the LA Philharmonic in Europe and heard performances of Mahler’s 9th Symphony in London, Paris, Budapest, and Vienna. I wrote about what I called “the most terrifying music to experience in the concert hall” and I explained how I’ve dealt with my own fear of interrupting in the past (including taking the battery out of my cell phone and putting it in a different pocket from the body of the phone). I am not alone in my paranoia. During that same trip, I remember sitting next to LA Phil President and CEO Deborah Borda who told me before the music started that even she still gets nervous about keeping absolutely silent at the end of the symphony. (Gustavo Dudamel’s interpretation doesn’t make things any easier: he holds his arms up in silence for as long as two minutes after the piece ends… two more minutes of no moving, no coughing and definitely no cell phone ringing.)

It’s not just a high-stakes elitist version of The Quiet Game. This is music that is so overwhelmingly intense it demands complete surrender of the mind, the emotions, and even our physicality. I can understand the anger over what happened yesterday in New York. Because I have a visceral reaction to this work every time I hear it, I would find it maddening if the power of that experience was shattered by an avoidable intrusion.

Music is the only art form where the canvas is silence and time. The tacit deal made between audience and orchestra is that everyone will respect both of those factors. Letting your cell phone ring during a performance is like spilling your Slurpee on the Mona Lisa.

However, classical music can already seem like a closed community to newbies and, as many in the blogosphere have pointed out, brouhahas like this can alienate potential concertgoers not yet fluent in concert hall etiquette. The audience member last night who yelled “Thousand dollar fine!” and those who added “Get out!” and “Kick him out!” are hardly warm ambassadors for an art form already struggling with issues of accessibility. We who already love classical music should work to allay the fears of a new, younger audience and to peak their curiosity about this music. I’m not sure launching a Cellphone-gate does that. A newcomer to the Philharmonic audience—a film student at a local university—called the reaction to the incident a “cathartic release of pent up aggression. Blatant, almost animal aggression, at the symphony, over a ringing phone. Maybe I’m new to the whole symphony culture but to me it seemed a bit much.”

I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to reliance on technology. I love my computer, my Blackberry, my iPod, my (wife’s) iPad. There is an irresistible allure to engage with the online world…to always know what is going on, where people are, what they are thinking. It’s a virtual extension of our real life community. Some concert presenters have designated “Cell Phone Zones” or “Tweet Zones” at certain concerts or rehearsals. (In fact, LA Opera has done just that for the dress rehearsal of its upcoming production of Simon Boccanegra.) I don’t have a problem with this. We’re sharing the ecstacies and agonies of our artistic experiences with others. But welcoming new media means welcoming the potential for noisy distraction.

So maybe moving forward from this incident doesn’t mean new rules or more rules. Maybe moving forward should include some looking back. Preoccupied as we are by the magic of technology, it’s easy to forget that the offline world is magical too. I can listen to Mahler’s 9th Symphony on iTunes, YouTube, Spotify, in the car, at the gym, the list goes on. But even the best recording can’t rival sitting down amongst dozens, hundreds, sometimes thousands of other human beings and sharing the experience of a live performance. And sure, maybe one of those humans won’t turn off their cell phone, but there is a moment at every concert where I look left and I look right and I revel in the fact that we have managed to put all of our differences aside and come together for a few brief minutes as a true community. We’re the shore being washed by wave after wave of music. It’s a feeling you could never convey in 140 characters. It’s the feeling that will keep me finding my seat in concert venues from here to New York to Budapest and beyond. And it’s the feeling that I’ll try (but never be able to fully) express to people who’ve never heard classical music live.

“You’ll love it.” I’ll tell them. “Don’t worry about what to wear or when to clap, just enjoy. And do you mind putting my cell phone battery in your pocket?”

UPDATE 1/13/12: How could this have happened? Patron X explains.

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