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Broken Viola, Ruined Concert, Exciting Time Had by All

June 10, 2011

Let me preface this by saying that this is not a review.

The other night, I attended a concert of new viola music. I was there for several reasons, but first and foremost was that violist Charlton Lee was playing a piece by me (it was awesome). The concert was part of Pamela Z’s Room concert series, and was called “Longer Burning” (as in the joke: “What’s the difference between a violin and a viola? A viola burns longer”). The concert featured three violists: Charlton Lee, Hank Dutt, and JHNO (aka John Eichenseer). Pamela Z also brought a piece to the table, and the concert ended with a group improvisation. In addition to the music mentioned above, there were offerings from Reza Vali, Edmund Campion, and Nils Bultmann.

But this is not a real review. At this concert, something incredibly dramatic occurred — something completely new for me. One row in front of me, an older couple was dissatisfied with JHNO’s performance. Early on, they began critiquing the piece aloud to each other. Eventually they grew louder and more disruptive until eventually the man began to loudly clap and ironically yell “Bravo!” to encourage JHNO to stop. The audience became uncomfortable. The woman was less ironic, but no less harsh, and cried “Stop!” and “Get off the stage!” JHNO then became upset, threw his viola to the ground, and stormed off. The viola was broken, and the electronics were awkwardly continued until one of the other people involved in the show slowly unplugged the equipment.

The viola was broken? On stage? I swear to you, that this is not the setup for a joke. It actually happened.

What was the piece that caused this outburst? Well, honestly, I still feel that I haven’t heard it at all. Basically, JHNO laid a bed of electronics that became a slowly morphing texture. I imagined that he would begin to solo on top of it, but he didn’t get that far. The piece sounded as though it had barely begun. I wasn’t impressed yet, but it certainly could have gone somewhere — and didn’t deserve ridicule.

This ridicule came from two successful, established, and respected musicians in the Bay Area, even nationally, one of whom has quite the history with new music. The response to this ridicule was impressive. One recent alum from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (Morgan O’Shaughnessey) walked in front of the audience and requested an “honest” round of applause for JHNO. Intermission came right after, and people went a little crazy. One audience member offered to pay Mr. and Mrs. Disruptive to leave. Another began to get in the man’s face aggressively, swearing at him and pestering him. Eventually, Joan Jeanrenaud, who also had a piece on the program, walked up and successfully defused the situation. She pulled Mr. Disruptive into a conversation, partially on concert etiquette, and partially about moving on. In a conversation about the event, Pamela was quite clear:

"I feel that the behavior of the couple was extremely childish. The level of inappropriateness could only be attributed to a child who doesn't know any better. They were in the very front row, so they could easily have left the room and there was a lobby where they could have hung out. And actually my studio assistant approached them while they were heckling and asked if they would leave if they didn't enjoy it, and then I went up to them, but in both cases they refused and it [the heckling] got worse. It was so bizarre that it seemed like a staged event. After JNHO left, the whole audience stood up and gave him this huge applause that I felt went on for, like, two minutes. And then when they ceased clapping, members of the audience stood up and started giving testimonials as to how great JNHO's performance was and how awful they thought the couple was. And I was, like 'What is happening?' I mean this is a small room with, like seats for 45 people and a little riser in front. And it was quite a high-energy event at that point. There was a weird exhilaration in the room that came from this disturbance. I'm just glad that JNHO came back. And he was such a good sport. I mean, after he cooled down, he was willing to come back in the second half, even though those people were still sitting in the front row, and he was almost at their feet playing the tambura in another piece. We're trying to push boundaries [at the Room Series] and [this incident] is a little symbolic of how far we've pushed them. I'm pretty sure that most of my listeners are very aware of people who make music through layers of sound that might sound like noise to the uninitiated. But it was interesting to root out those who weren't."

So What Do I Think ABout It?

Obviously, Mr. and Mrs. Disruptive were out of line. While I’m impressed at their extreme emotional response, I found their lack of inhibition, especially from musicians in the field, to be disturbing. I was saddened to see so little respect for art, for someone trying to show something. To hear those remarks from someone who was such a model pedagogue pained me. For obvious reasons, I think it’s inappropriate to share this man’s name, but he has worked with some of the most important new-music specialists in the Bay Area.

On the other hand, JHNO probably overreacted. I don’t know, but I suspect he regrets the loss of his viola. You might suggest that someone in the audience could have shown Mr. and Mrs. Disruptive the door, but I believe that would have only made the situation worse. The sole person who had any control at all was JHNO. I’m not saying that I would have done this (I hope I never find out), but I believe that he could have stopped playing and politely requested that Mr. and Mrs. Disruptive either leave or give him a chance. That would not necessarily have worked, but it had a better chance of doing so than someone in the audience going that route. Mr. and Mrs. D. clearly felt that they had performed a service to the audience by breaking JHNO’s spirit.

The truth is, seeing such hate and anger in the new-music world was depressing. I admit I’m a little bit of a young hippie; I really came to music out of love, out of pleasure, out of community. Sure, I spend a lot of time at concerts that I honestly don’t enjoy that much, yet I still love going to them. I like being exposed to new things, I like being surrounded by interested (and interesting) people, and I have found that community in new music. I feel that few people were being open at the show, from Mr. and Mrs. D., who actually shut down a performance in progress, to the aggressive audience that almost appeared ready for a lynching. I am grateful to Joan Jeanrenaud for defusing the situation, and I am grateful to Pamela Z for comically encouraging unhappy audience members to quietly leave.

The Room series is truly a concert series of extreme openness. Every concert I’ve gone to (a paltry number, in view of the quality of the performances) showcases minds ready to experience anything. Pamela Z, the architect of the series, evinces a positivity about all life that we can only hope the audience shares for the future.

I’m kinda wishing I had a punch line along about now. ...

Matthew Cmiel holds degrees in composition from The Curtis Institute of Music and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He has received numerous commissions, including one from Maestra Marin Alsop for the Cabrillo New Music Festival. Founder of the ensemble Formerly Known as Classical and The Hot Air Music Festival, he is currently the Director of Orchestras at San Francisco's Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, and co-director of the ensemble After Everything.


I thought the two old codgers who heckled the violist behaved very rudely and in a very childish manner. They should have been ejected IMMEDIATELY, but instead, the idiots who ran the concert venue waited until things got totally out of hand and the concert was completely and utterly ruined. By they time they finally took charge of the situation, it was like locking the barn door after the horse had already fled.

I think it's a sad comment on the utter lack of civility and good manners in this atavistic society.

I completely understand the violist's initial reaction to the hecklers, but what amazes me is that he was such a good sport in returning to the stage to continue playing, after cooling off. Kudos to him!

Wow, this is pretty shocking. I know the heckler from college days and while he was opinionated, I never saw this childish streak. Maybe he needs medication and is not taking it? Really, there is no other possible excuse.

When I lived in SF, I went to many contemporary music concerts, and at only one was there something even comparable, but it also really bummed me out as this one did you. The SF Contemporary Music Players were premiering a piece by Julia Wolfe (of Bang on a Can fame) and the folks in front of me began to talk loudly and rudely in the middle of it, and when it was finished they booed. Ms. Wolfe was in the audience and had been asked to stand up to receive applause - it was just so rude. It's great when music elicits strong responses, but the place for discussion is not during the concert, and the strong criticism should be done in a different fashion. Afterward, I told the boo-ers that I thought they were rude and disrespectful, especially to the musicians who had worked so hard on the piece, and they got in my face. I guess some people just have to show how smart they are at everyone else's expense.

Thanks for your story on this. I hope it stimulates some good discussion!

to the fact that he hated the music, acted out inappropriately, and should have (instead) simply left. Don't buy his revisionist history to the effect that it was only the volume of the music that he disliked: we could hear his & his wife's grumbling, complaining, and derisive comments OVER the music. Likewise don't buy his claim that it was too dark for him to leave. It wasn't that dark. In fact Pamela Z had trouble getting the lights low enough. And her assistant offered to help them leave after their first outburst. (Before JHNO, yes, over-reacted by smashing his viola.) Apparently Mr. Zaslav has apologized to JHNO and to Pamela Z, but he also owes an apology to every other member of the audience for depriving us of the chance to hear a piece of music. In that sense Zaslav "succeeded," and we're all the poorer for it.

I wasn't there but I read all of the prior comments with great interest. It is only in relatively recent times that "concert etiquette" requires a passive audience. Reports of rotten fruits and vegetables flung at performers and even of long-running feuds between factions supporting composers of opposing viewpoints, not to mention audience riots at new-work premieres, are legion in the music history of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Music has always inspired passionate responses and that is at least part of its attraction.

All of that is not to say that disruptive rudeness should be tolerated, but merely offered to give a bit of perspective.

Since the avalanche of unhappiness with the events of 6/5/11, "Longer Burning," continues, I should like to repeat a prior explanation, in case not all of the comments on my behalf have been sufficiently noted . After a severe fall in my home and striking my head rather violently, I continued to suffer from severe diagnosed vertigo, but when my close friend Hank Dutt invited me to this concert I asked to be brought there by some friends. Though macular degeneration and some high-frequency hearing loss have put an end to my performing career, I hope that my long-standing devotion to new music, beginning with my founding of the Composers Quartet in the 1960 (to which Elliott Carter dedicated his 4th String Quartet, among other composers) has been of some consequence in the new music scene.

After so much comment, speculation, and interpretation of my obviously rude behavior, I must maintain that I, and only I, can possibly know the degree of pain I was suffering when when sitting directly before loudspeakers just 4 feet in front of me in a crowded, darkened room: the syndrome termed Recruitment in audiology speaks directly to the physical pain and the anguish I felt, in not being able to leave without further fear of falling. I was wearing the latest version of hi-tech hearing aids which still remain highly problematical in the real world, as those of you who require them well know, and I did attempt to remove them. After a fall and skull fracture at age 4, I was required to have two successive mastoidectomies, a life threatening procedure then, and no longer done in this day of antibiotics. It has left me with a badly twisted left ear canal, a condition for which there is no remedy, so I must thank my audiologist for her efforts.

Yes, I guess I “lost it” in that stressful moment, but in my quoted comments, “This is a desecration!” and “This isn’t music!” I was referring to the level of pain, though I’m sure there are some who will not believe that. Leaving the room didn’t seem like an option in that dark, enclosed space – your basic nightmare.The muttering that has been mentioned was coming from my patient wife, who was sitting next to me and trying to calm me. If I could have escaped without fear of falling (again) that would have been the answer, but it simply wasn't a option, The larger issue is one of my veracity, but I don’t expect to convince the doubters. In any event, they continue to have their say on the matter, portraying me as some sort of Luddite monster. As to the music I did hear, I very much enjoyed Charlton Lee's virtuoso performance, and Hank's exciting playing, as always, was a treat to the ears as well as the mind, as has been the case through our many years as "bow nuts."

I have since spoken personally, and at length, to both Pamela Z and JHNO. They have accepted my apology for my behavior and I thank them for their understanding. What I’ve learned from this experience is not to put myself in a place where I don’t physically belong at my age and relative degree of infirmity, but that doesn’t preclude my wish to continue living for music, old and “new.” Hank called me last week from New York, where Kronos received the Avery Fischer Award, and shared a table with three of my ex-students. I am mot empathetic to the road that JHNO has travelled, since my own grandson, just graduated from Ann Arbor as a compter composer, is about to embark on that same journey.

It seems that a fair number of people here know nothing of the 'old codger' they are complaining about. Fair enough. He has never been much for self-promotion.

I studied with Bernard Zaslav for five years at Stanford, and have counted him as a friend ever since. He is one of the most remarkable musicians any of us will ever meet.

Bernard Zaslav deserves respect because he earned it in a 60 year career. In numerous quartets, ensembles, concerts, festivals, recordings and studios, he demonstrated for more decades than most of us have been alive a deep commitment to new music. His connections to Ben Johnson and Elliott Carter are well-known. Bernie has championed many and much more than that.

He has standing because he is one of our great elders in music. He taught hundreds of students, inspired hundreds of concerts, and helped commission dozens of new works. His devotion to our music is breathtaking.

I wasn't at this concert, and I don't know the music. But I know the man. Bernie is as fine, decent and committed a musician as we may ever know. He is a lovely human being who has helped more students and composers (myself among them) than the public will ever know. He clearly regrets what happened, and that's good enough for me.

Bernard Zaslav has a lifetime of standing up for new work. That is his 'standing' here, and no one can take it from him.

Did alcohol or atranquilizer have any relation to this lack of control behavior? As we mature over age 50, our brain becomes far more sensitive to a small amount of alcohol or tranquilizer.

Has anyone considered that it was all part of the show??? :)

Like Joaquin Phoenix's recent stunt or Andy Kaufman? I guess I'm being too optimistic...