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Fistfights and Other Fireworks

July 3, 2007

The eminent Spanish conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos raises his baton on opening night at Symphony Hall in Boston. Before a single note sounds, a cell phone rings. Frühbeck's shoulders slump, and he waits appropriately for a new starting point. As he raises his baton once more, the same cell phone rings again. He turns and glares — our offender is in the pricey seats up front — but mister no-clue actually takes the call this time, and everyone can hear him say, "I'm in Symphony Hall right now, and I may have to call you back later."
Well, duh. That was last year, but when a fistfight broke out in Symphony Hall during opening night of the Boston Pops season this past May, it seemed a fitting symbol of the increasingly boorish behavior of classical music audiences.

The New York Times headlined it "You Go to a Fight, and a Boston Pops Concert Breaks Out." First there was a scream in the balcony, which Keith Lockhart, conducting an excerpt from Gigi, only acknowledged with a glance over his shoulder. Then a brawl ensued, with one not-so-genteel patron ripping the shirt off another, the bare-chested victim's miniskirted girlfriend trying to come to his rescue (watch the video online). At this point Lockhart stopped the music, stood and stared upstairs. The Symphony Hall security team responded with surprising alacrity and ousted the combatants. Lockhart refrained from comment, and when the two bruisers were finally in the penalty box, he resumed the performance.

Apparently one guy started complaining that the other guy was making too much noise, and the offender took offense and got the better of the accuser. (At a closed-door hearing, both agreed to withdraw their assault and battery complaints, and neither was prosecuted.)

Lack of cell phone etiquette must be partly forgiven — having a portable phone is a relatively new phenomenon, and so is forgetting to turn it off. This listener attends upwards of 250 concerts a year, and there have been intermissions where I've been mortified to see my phone still active. (It's never gone off, though — yet.)In April 2006, Michael Tilson Thomas was speaking at Davies Symphony Hall about a Webern piece he was about to conduct, when someone's phone rang. As Janos Gereben wrote in SFCV, MTT made a joke about it and continued his talk, "when the phone — loud and persistent — rang again. This time, there was no joke, the conductor stopped midsentence, snapped, 'Forget it!' and twirled around and gave the downbeat." It was a justifiable, and from MTT, rare show of temper, Gereben wrote, but "… the performance suffered from the abrupt beginning."
Lawn Disorder
With the outdoor festival season hard upon us, wayward phones are just the overture (not that I recall any fistfights). It's partly because there are so many more children in attendance — parents, correctly in most cases, figure putting a squirmy kid in a lawn chair outdoors is a safer way to introduce him to classical music. But of course games of tag break out, the thuds of baseballs hitting gloves seem ubiquitous, and toasts, with clinking wine glasses, are everywhere. There also seems to be a growing trend for knitters to work on their projects during the concerts, which is fine on the lawn, but is a major distraction at festivals that have indoor venues, as well, like the Shed at Tanglewood.

Mind you, this listener is not a strict practitioner of classical decorum. To me, it's OK to applaud after the first movement of a concerto cadenza. But some manners must be observed. However you want to put it, classical music audiences are changing expected behaviors.

Maybe not for the better, but let's not forget the past. Italians throwing tomatoes at opera singers is not a myth — it actually happens. And once, at Milan's La Scala, a tenor was asked to encore a Verdi aria at least a half-dozen times. After the last plea "Bis, bis" (Italian for "encore"), he begged off, saying he could sing no longer. A wag in the audience yelled out, "Sing it until you learn it." Ouch.

When outlandish behavior is a response to performances, that's one thing. When personal lives intrude upon concerts, that's another. One thing I noticed when I worked in New York (it happens elsewhere, too, but was particularly egregious there) was how huge sections of the audience would bolt for the exits the instant the last note sounded. Many performers, taking their well-earned bows, wore looks of dismay as they noticed hordes of concertgoers stampeding up the aisles, presumably dashing out for their all-important dinner reservations. I'm certain it cost the rest of us many encores.
A Familiar Ring
The worst moment for Boston audiences came several years ago, during a magnificent recital by San Francisco's own Frederica von Stade. As the final pianissimo note of one of Canteloube's great Chants d'Auvergne floated out, a cell phone broke into the hushed mood. It was bad enough that it went off right at that climactic moment; what made it worse was the ringtone, a cheesy version of Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik. It proved two things — that the offender wants to seem like he has a "thing" for classical music, and that he doesn't know a damn thing about how to behave.

Performers have been known to take matters into their own hands. Years ago, pianist Alfred Brendel stopped a concerto in Carnegie Hall, midway though the slow movement, telling the audience, "You know, I can hear you, but you can't hear me. So let's try to stop coughing so much. I've come a long way to play this music, and practiced many hours. If you don't want to hear it, you should leave."

The baritone Thomas Quasthoff takes a direct approach, especially when singing lieder. "These songs have a feeling that continues through each single number," he said a few years ago before beginning a Schubert recital. "So let's try not to cough or talk between songs. After we're done, we can all have a good cough together." The remarks brought the house down, and silence prevailed throughout the performance.And at the finale of the recent Boston Symphony Orchestra season, one poor woman in the front row broke into a sneezing fit. Conductor Bernard Haitink at first just gave her a hard stare, but when it continued, turned away from the orchestra and gave her the "get your butt outta here" gesture with both hands. She left.

Sneezing is one thing — that's uncontrollable. But what has instigated this trend of outlandish audience behavior? For one, audience members are increasingly made up of the boomer generation that grew up on rock and roll concerts. And while this listener has never smelled burning marijuana in Symphony Hall, it does seem like some of that rock concert behavior has been transferred.

But I truly don't think that it's ignorance. In fact, I don't even like the idea that there is a certain "expected" behavior. That increases audience intimidation, and limits the development of new devotees to classical music. Who cares if you don't know when to clap, or not to clap?

I believe the larger issue is societal. We live in a world where driving the car while talking on the phone is normal, where watching the news on television while downloading e-mails happens every day, where attending your kid's soccer game has to be accompanied by checking your Blackberry every five minutes.

Note to all: Sometimes, let's try to do just one thing at a time. Like sitting quietly in a chair and listening to great music.

Keith Powers covers classical music and the visual arts for The Boston Herald.