Occupy Avery Fisher Hall

Stop me if you've heard this: On January 10, at Avery Fisher Hall in New York's Lincoln Center, a performance of Mahler's Symphony 9, led by conductor Alan Gilbert, was stopped in its tracks by the ringing of an iPhone.

It wasn't just any part of the Mahler Ninth: It happened during the exceedingly quiet closing measures of the final movement.

It wasn't just any symphony orchestra: It was the New York Philharmonic, which Gustav Mahler directed during the last two years of his life.

It wasn't just any interruption: According to Paul Pelkonen, an insightful blogger on all things classical, the ringing continued for several minutes. As a matter of fact, the phone continued to ring well after Maestro Gilbert had stopped the performance, turned from the orchestra, and confronted its owner, who was sitting in the front row.

And it wasn't just any ringing: It was the iPhone Marimba, which sounds like a methamphetaminized version of the music from the old Maxwell House coffee commercials.

Take the rag away from your face, as Bob Dylan once sang: Now ain't the time for your tears. Indeed, there's more to this story.

Word of the incident was picked up by most major news services, and the story spread fast. Common to all reports were the following: The ringing iPhone was heard throughout most portions of the closing Adagio, loud and soft alike, eliciting at least one sharp look from the conductor. Then, during the hushed final bars, the disturbance proved too great to ignore. Gilbert stopped the orchestra and confronted the offender, asking him, "Are you finished?" The man remained silent, yet continued to let his phone ring. "Fine," Gilbert said. "We'll wait." At last, the offender turned off his phone. "It won't go off again?" the conductor asked. The owner of the phone shook his head. "We'll start again," Gilbert said—to the cheers of the rest of the audience—and the music resumed.

At no time did the Avery Fisher Hall ushers, who are legendary for seeking out anyone who dares wield a camera and then landing on that person like a hen on a June bug, make an effort to escort the offender from the auditorium, which would have been standard procedure in most such settings.

On January 12, the New York Times surprised everyone by publishing some quotes from the man whose iPhone spoiled the evening for the other 2737 people in attendance. (The Times neither disclosed his identity nor indicated how they had come by the information.) In an unambiguously sympathetic piece, the Times said that "Patron X" is, in the man's own words, "a business executive between 60 and 70 who runs two companies." X claimed that, on the day before the concert, "his company" replaced his Blackberry with an iPhone, and X didn't realize that its alarm had already been set, by hand or force unknown.

X went on to say that he had silenced his phone before the concert, without realizing that its alarm would still sound. The final ingredient in this Perfekt Sturm: All the while his iPhone was singing its frenzied cha-cha over the saddest and quietest chords in 20th-century music, Patron X didn't realize that the sound was coming from his own pocket. Never mind the fact that its alarm function will also cause a silenced iPhone to vibrate. Lustily.

Now we come to the best part of all: Lincoln Center management contacted Patron X, whom they identified by his seat number, ostensibly to request that he power down his iPhone during future concerts. In the course of the call, X requested an opportunity to speak with Alan Gilbert directly. That request was granted.

Don't be alarmed by that apparent exercise of privilege: It turns out that Lincoln Center management offers the same opportunity anyone, regardless of income or social status who disrupts a performance in Avery Fisher Hall.

Actually, I made that up. The opposite is true: If you or I did such a thing, the best we could hope for would be an interview with Lincoln Center Security.

Why did the ushers at Avery Fisher Hall treat Patron X with the deference usually reserved for Presidents who vomit at functions of state? I asked, and Betsy Vorce of Lincoln Center said, "After reviewing the staff's actions, we concluded that what happened at the concert on January 10 was the result of an unfortunate, onetime confluence of circumstances; by the time the ushers identified the specific location of the ringing, Maestro Gilbert had stopped the performance."

One may accept that. Or one may agree with the anonymous subscriber to Paul Pelkonen's blog who commented: "Why didn't ushers intervene? My guess is that patrons who can afford seats in the first rows are simply not to be ordered about by a mere usher."

I asked Vorce if it is Lincoln Center's policy to offer personal interviews with performing artists to anyone who disrupts a performance. She politely declined to field that one, saying that it was actually the New York Philharmonic that "reached out to the cell-phone owner."

Bury the rag deep in your face: Now is the time for your tears.

Is classical music only for the privileged? I've never thought so, and I don't think so now. Yet I'm troubled by what appears to be a case of special treatment.

The starting salary of a member of the New York Philharmonic is reported to be $141,000, plus benefits; the average salary of a veteran player is considerably higher. And there are over 100 of them. When, once or twice a year, I come to town and pay $45 to hear them or some other world-class orchestra, I'm getting a bargain; the rest of the bill has to be picked up by someone, and some of those someones are wealthy supporters. (Thank you!)

Yet no good can come of this if the people who dispense classical music start to believe that they serve two classes of listener. In showing what they think of the one, they cannot help but show what they think of the other.

As for Baron von X, there isn't much to say. Who among us has not discovered, at the end of concert, that he forgot to silence his phone—and was spared the humiliation of having disturbed or ruined the experience of others only through dumb luck? Who among us isn't worried that our hearing will go south when we hit 70? Hell, who among us has not made mistakes? Patron X may be a delightful, generous man, or a privileged boor with entitlement issues; because I have a more than passing interest in being forgiven for my own flaws, it behooves me to assume the former.

But he still owes something to those 2737 other patrons. (Let's not play the Times's game and reserve that title for only the few.) I'll bet a fellow who runs two companies and has a front-row subscription to the NY Phil can afford to donate enough money to replace a hundred of those tatty seat cushions at Avery Fisher Hall. He could write a check today and make it happen—and he would forever be in the hearts of a hundred asses. But there's one stipulation: The money should go to fix the hundred cheapest seats.

Gene T's picture

Very well stated.

coruja's picture

Is classical music only for the privileged? I've never thought so, and I don't think so now.

Unforunately, that is exactly how it is perceived by the majority of the population. If it were not so, there would be more symphony orchestras, young musicians (apart from those at NY Phil) would not be destitute (too many violinists too few places ) and there would be less wholesale corporatisation of the arts.

In richer countries, the arts is practiced by the poor and appreciated by the middle/upper classes. It is a shame and more should be done about it, starting with a more holistic education that educates the person for the betterment of his/her society. (The Greeks did make a few good observations, it must be admitted.)

In poorer countries, art is practiced by the poor and ignored by almost everyone else.