Friday, January 13, 2012

Phone Is Ringing. Ohmigod. GET IT TOGETHER...

Sweet fanciful Moses the phone has been ringing off the hook here at the InvectiCave. Seems like everybody want me to hop on the InvectiCycle and zoom up to Lincoln Center to get to the bottom of Cellphonegate. I was sitting around a table of musicians at intermission a couple of days ago when the whole story broke. If for some bizarre reason, you’re the kind of person who doesn’t think a cell phone going off during a concert is a big deal, you may have missed the story. Here’s the original ArtsBeat post about it in the Times:

January 11, 2012, 3:05 PM
New York Philharmonic Interrupted by Chimes Mahler Never Intended
The end of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony contains some of the most spiritual and peaceful music ever written. So when a cell phone began ringing – and ringing, ringing, ringing without cease – during a performance by the New York Philharmonic on Tuesday evening, Alan Gilbert did something conductors virtually never do. He stopped the performance.

And then things really got bizarre.

Mr. Gilbert, the orchestra’s music director, said he turned to the area of Avery Fisher Hall where the sound was coming from, in one of the front rows, and asked the unknown miscreant to turn off the phone. (It was an individual who apparently failed to heed the recorded announcement from the actor Alec Baldwin to silence cell phones that is played before the Philharmonic’s performances.)

“Nothing happened,” Mr. Gilbert said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. “Nobody was owning up to it. It was surreal.” The phone kept ringing – the iPhone’s marimba ring-tone, according to the music blogger Paul Pelkonen, who wrote about the incident.

Mr. Gilbert said audience members pointed out two people sitting where the sound was coming from. “They were staring at me resolutely,” he said of the couple. Eventually, the man put his hand in his pocket and the ringing stopped. “It was so weird,” Mr. Gilbert said. “Did he think he could just bite his lip and soldier through?”

The conductor said he asked the man if he was sure the device was quieted. “Then he nodded his head,” Mr. Gilbert said. Guilty!

People in the hall had been shouting for the sound to stop. Mr. Pelkonen reported that they yelled: “Thousand-dollar fine!” “Kick him out!” “Get out!”  Another blogger, who was present, Max Kinchen, wrote, “They wanted blood!”

Mr. Gilbert, in the interview, said: “It was so shocking what happened. You’re in this very far away spiritual place in the piece. It’s like being rudely awakened. All of us were stunned on the stage.”

The conductor then apologized to the audience for stopping, saying that usually it’s best just to ignore such a disruption, but this case was too much. The audience cheered and applauded. He then started the music again, picking a loud passage leading into the tranquil final minutes to begin.

Ringing cell phones are a common scourge of live performances, and indeed, most musicians soldier on. “Usually it’s not Mahler Nine you’re playing,” Mr. Gilbert said, “and usually it’s not the most emotionally wrought part of Mahler Nine, and usually people deal with it.”

He said he was convinced the sound was an alarm because of its continuous nature.

The policy at Avery Fisher Hall, run by Lincoln Center, where the Philharmonic is a tenant, is for ushers to approach the owners of ringing phones and ask them discreetly to turn off the devices, said Eric Latzky, the orchestra’s spokesman. “In this incident, unfortunately the policy was not followed,” he said.

Betsy Vorce, a spokeswoman for Lincoln Center, said officials were talking to the ushers involved. “This is one incident where the policy wasn’t followed,” she said. “We’re investigating it. We’ll take corrective action if necessary.”

The ushers do not answer directly to orchestra management, and Mr. Gilbert said no ushers were in sight at the time of the ringing. “I heard this morning that ushers in the hall claimed they didn’t hear it, which sounds ridiculous to me,” he said. “Everybody could hear it.”

Okay. Now first of all I wasn’t there. Second of all, when the story was recounted to me I was gleefully applauding Gilbert in my mind because I was imagining him calling out a member of the violin section of the Philharmonic. I missed the beginning of the story and I made the assumption that it was a member of the section because I can think of two occasions where I have been on stage where a musician’s phone has rung, and several more anecdotal ones. Of course none of these musicians were reprimanded, and in fact there’s a famous story of a performer staring down the audience while his own cell phone was ringing in his pocket, continuing to play, passing it off as if it was an audience member’s fault as opposed to owning up to his own blunder. So I thought Gilbert was taking the opportunity to chew out his own players, which as Artistic Director, is his prerogative. Then I snapped out of it and got the full story and I was just appalled. There are so many things wrong with what he did that I don’t even know where to begin.
1)    GET OVER IT. We are participating in a public performance. There are other human beings present. They might cough, they might sneeze, and they might call out “woooooo! Seriously, it's happened at a concert before. People forget to turn off their phones. They make mistakes. I have definitely heard the Philharmonic musicians make mistakes. Tolerating others is the price we pay for being tolerated.
2)    IF YOU DIDN’T THINK CLASSICAL MUSICIANS WERE UPTIGHT BEFORE, YOU SURE AS HELL DO NOW. Is this going to help? Aren’t we trying to change our image? We all claim that there isn’t any “right” way to listen to a concert, but if the biggest institution in the city acts like this, it seems like we don’t mean it. In Mozart’s day, people were gambling, drinking and (gasp) doing it in the audience. Can we go back to that instead of turning it into a museum? How is our art supposed to live and breathe if the audience thinks they might get yelled at by the maestro for misbehaving?
3)    LOOK AT WHAT A BIG MAN I AM. I really think this is about power, one person imagining that they are in control of a situation and coming face-to-face with the fact that they are not, none of us are in control of anything. As Dr. Denis Leary once said “Life’s hard, get a fucking helmet.”
4)    YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT THE WHOLE STORY IS. Check out the follow-up:

Ringing Finally Ended, but There’s No Button to Stop Shame
Published: January 12, 2012

They were baying for blood in the usually polite precincts of Avery Fisher Hall.

The unmistakably jarring sound of an iPhone marimba ring interrupted the soft and spiritual final measures of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 at the New York Philharmonic on Tuesday night. The conductor, Alan Gilbert, did something almost unheard-of in a concert hall: He stopped the performance. But the ringing kept on going, prompting increasingly angry shouts in the audience directed at the malefactor.

After words from Mr. Gilbert, and what seemed like weeks, the cell phone owner finally silenced his device. After the audience cheered, the concert resumed. Internet vitriol ensued.

But no one, it seems, felt worse than the culprit, who agreed to an interview on Thursday on condition that he not be identified — for obvious reasons.

“You can imagine how devastating it is to know you had a hand in that,” said the man, who described himself as a business executive between 60 and 70 who runs two companies. “It’s horrible, horrible.” The man said he had not slept in two days.

The man, called Patron X by the Philharmonic, said he was a lifelong classical music lover and 20-year subscriber to the orchestra who was friendly with several of its members. He said he himself was often irked by coughs, badly timed applause — and cell phone rings. “Then God, there was I. Holy smokes,” he said.

“It was just awful to have any role in something like that, that is so disturbing and disrespectful not only to the conductor but to all the musicians and not least to the audience, which was so into this concert,” he said by telephone.

“I hope the people at that performance and members of the orchestra can certainly forgive me for this whole event. I apologize to the whole audience.”

Patron X said he received a call from an orchestra official the day after the concert. He had been identified by his front-row seat. The official politely asked him not to do it again, he said, and the man took the opportunity to ask to speak to Mr. Gilbert, to apologize in person.

The men talked by telephone (it was a land line) on Thursday afternoon. Mr. Gilbert said he told Patron X, “I’m really sorry you had to go through this,” and accepted his apology.

Before that, the disruption became the marimba ring tone heard round the world, prompting feverish commentary on blogs and comment forums about performance interruptions.

In a Twitter message, the composer Daniel Dorff said, “Changed my ringtone to play #Mahler 9 just in case.” A YouTube poster superimposed a marimba sound over a performance of the piece by Leonard Bernstein.

The episode seemed to serve as an extreme example of how one of the staples of modern life can disrupt a live performance, because of both Mr. Gilbert’s reaction and the guilty party’s long delay in shutting off the cell phone.

Actually, Patron X said he had no idea he was the culprit. He said his company replaced his BlackBerry with an iPhone the day before the concert. He said he made sure to turn it off before the concert, not realizing that the alarm clock had accidentally been set and would sound even if the phone was in silent mode.

“I didn’t even know phones came with alarms,” the man said.

But as Mr. Gilbert was glaring in his direction, he fiddled with the phone as others around him did, just to be sure, pressing buttons. That was when the sound stopped. It was only in the car going home that his wife checked the settings on his phone and found that the alarm had been set.

Cellphones often go off during all sorts of performances, but the Mahler incident was a rarity: It happened during one of music’s most sublime moments, it did not stop after a few seconds, and it emanated from the front row, where it was impossible for Mr. Gilbert to ignore.

The Philharmonic said the ushers at Avery Fisher Hall — who work for Lincoln Center, not the orchestra — should have intervened. Lincoln Center said it was investigating.

Both Mr. Gilbert and Patron X found something positive in the episode.

“It shows how important people still feel live performance is,” Mr. Gilbert said. “This is something people either consciously or implicitly recognize as sacred.”

The patron agreed. The incident underscored “the very enduring and important bond between the audience and the performers,” he said, adding, “If it’s disturbed in any significant way, it just shows how precious this whole union is.” 

I’m really grateful to Daniel Wakin for the excellent reporting on this story. My heart sank like a stone for this poor guy. I have checked and re-checked, and triple checked my phone at the beginnings of concerts because sometimes those damn things JUST GO OFF. They go off by themselves. The technology is constantly changing; you never know what the pre-sets are going to be if you have a new device, it’s scary. And I’m not trying to be ageist here but the older we get, the less tech-savvy we become. If my cell phone rang during a concert, on stage or in the audience, I would die. I would crawl into a hole forever. There’s this weird thing that’s required to be a human being and it’s essential to being a great musician: empathy. When I’m at a classical concert and someone’s cell goes off, I know that that person is jamming their hand in their pocket, frantically rummaging through their purse (where they can never find anything) and close to tears by the third ring. Alan Gilbert demonstrated absolutely zero empathy for Patron X (you gotta love that code name) in the moment, perhaps egged on by a bloodthirsty Philharmonic crowd. In the follow-up article it’s nice that he realizes what happened and was sympathetic to the guy after the fact. Not enough for me. It’s wrong. You do not turn around and call out people in the audience for an accident! You don’t do it. If someone shouted at Gilbert, threw something at the stage, screamed “fire”, there’s all sorts of moments that may require a performer’s intervention. From my perspective, and I’m surprised that I haven’t seen any comments from this angle, is that it was about a conductor’s ego. That ring tone ruined his moment. And like an overgrown child, he lashed out at the person responsible. What is great about this story is that Patron X was so eloquent about his love for music and his apology to the orchestra and audience. He shows he really gets it, and deeply regrets what happened. I really appreciate the “not least to the audience” bit. It also reveals how much damage an attack from the stage like that can do to a guy.
In an amazing coincidence the exact same thing happened to me about 13 years ago and some readers from Toronto may remember this event. I have a suspicion that it was at the exact same moment in the piece. Imagine the scene: Roy Thomson Hall. Toronto Symphony Orchestra with Jukka-Pekka Saraste conducting. Young Invectivator at the back of the viola section. Mahler 9. Near the end of the concet. Almost 80 minutes of music. Just second violins and violas playing what felt like pianississississississississimo. All of a sudden, out of this near silence, from the balcony came:


I kid you not. A dog barked. I looked down at my part in disbelief. I was immediately lost and had no idea where we were. I don’t know how we made it to the end. Out of my peripheral vision I caught the cello section starting to lose it, shaking shoulders holding back laughter. I looked up at Jukka-Pekka. Tears were streaming down his face and he was turning purple with rage. He had put his entire self into that performance and he was livid that it had been ruined. I saw murder and frustration and disappointment in his eyes. You know what? 

He kept conducting and finished the piece. 

The other angle is that the back stage quips were pretty great that night (Boy, we really screwed the pooch tonight!) and my Dad who happened to be at the concert told me after the concert that he wanted to strangle the dog. Turns out it was a seeing-eye dog who was freaking out that 2000 people were all quiet at once. I wonder would Alan Gilbert have had the dog destroyed? My Dad would have agreed with him. Myself, I know that sometimes, life intrudes. That’s the chance we take every time we go to a concert. A chance that the music will be wrecked by human error and also the possibility of a magical transformation of our souls. Mostly it’s somewhere in between but we keep going, and we keep playing, hoping for the unexpected. Those that can’t deal with it should stay home and listen to a record in an isolation booth.

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