Thursday, January 12, 2012

At how bad a point did the cell-phone ring heard 'round the world interrupt the NY Phil's Mahler Ninth? Let's complete the symphony


No, our performance of the sublime final Adagio of the Mahler Ninth Symphony isn't by Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic (pictured here). It's by Otto Klemperer and the New Philharmonia Orchestra, recorded by EMI in February 1967. You'll note, though, that our performance -- unlike the Philharmonic's Tuesday night at Avery Fisher Hall -- isn't interrupted by a ringing cell phone.

"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."
-- New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert,
in a phone interview with the NYT's Daniel Wakin

by Ken

You couldn't write a script like this. Here's Daniel Wakin's NYT account:
The end of Mahler's Ninth Symphony contains some of the most spiritual and peaceful music ever written. So when a cellphone 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 cellphones 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!"

No, you couldn't write a script like this. In what's Leslie Albrecht describes in her account as "the quite final strains" of the Mahler Ninth! Paul Pelkonen, the blogger cited by Daniel Wakin, notes: "A post by Michael Jo on the classical music blog specifies that the interruption happened just 13 bars before the last page of the score. In other words, in the final moments of a 25-minute movement that ends a 90-minute symphony."

NOTE: "13 bars before the last page of the score" would be at approximately 18:41 of the Klemperer recording at the top of this post.


What did Mahler himself go through to bring his Ninth Symphony, the last he actually finished, to a close? Lenny has a particular East vs. West view of the piece, which I think it's easy to tell he felt perhaps more deeply than any other. His comments are superimposed here over his 1975 Vienna Philharmonic video recording of the symphony. (We've got a fuller, though still incomplete, version below.) Our pickup point corresponds to 20:42 of the Klemperer recording at the top of this post.'s Albrecht, by the way, notes that in the up-front area where the cell phone went off, "tickets sell for up to $118." "Ringing cellphones are a common scourge of live performances," Daniel Wakin notes, "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."

The way people "usually deal with it" at Avery Fisher Hall, according to Philharmonic spokesman Eric Latzky, is for an usher to approach the phone owner and discreetly ask the person to shut it off. "In this incident, unfortunately the policy was not followed." There seems to be some suggestion that, this close to the end of the performance, the hall's original complement of 22 ushers was at less than full strength. Daniel Wakin, noting that the orchestra is merely a tenant at Lincoln Center, and that Lincoln Center spokeswoman Betsy Vorce said, "We're investigating it. We'll take corrective action if necessary," concludes his report:
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."

DNAinfo's Leslie Albrecht reports that "the audience member was not punished or officially reprimanded," according to a Philharmonic spokeswoman. (We have more, um, "information" about this audience member below, and for all I know it could be true.)

Once conductor Gilbert was satisfied that the phone was silenced, he spoke briefly to the audience and then, according to the account by Michael at, "turned to the orchestra, said 'Number 118,' and started up again, at the point where the trombones enter fortissimo for the last big climax," and "Mahler's Ninth finally found its way home." Michael, by the way, "clarifies" in an update "that aside from the three shouts I quoted above, the audience was relatively restrained in its reaction; you could sense that people were upset, but they kept themselves under control, and actually shushed the few shouters so that Gilbert could deal effectively with the situation."

Michael also directs attention to the blog of Norman Lebrecht, whom I consider a pompous and generally loathsome toad who overflows with inside information that is sometimes actually true. Slimy Norman reports:
The man was quickly identified by New York Philharmonic officials as a long-term subscriber, and they are being very careful not to disclose his name because, they say, it wasn't his fault and they don't want to lose his business. Already, there are philistine tabloids baying for his blood.

Here's the story (and you read it here first): they guy had just bought himself an i-phone. No longer in the first flush of youth, he was not quite sure how the darned thing worked but he knew his etiquette well enough to shut it off before the concert started.

What he did not shut off was a preset alarm. When it gave a marimba ring, he thought it must be someone else and looked around in irritation. Then he found it was him, and the conductor was glaring at him like a schoolboy who'd let off a stinkbomb. Mortified? Our guy didn't know where to look.

He's gone to ground, maybe Florida, and will never live down the shame.

I'm not going to be the one to disclose his name.

But it does make a case for concertgoers, especially the over-50s, to be asked to check in their phones with their coats. Right?

Since Slimytoad's account isn't sourced exactly (he does this a lot, making it harder to guess whether his frequent misinformation is made up in his head or is the result of actual "sources" having him on), we're left to presume that it came from those unnamed "New York Philharmonic officials" (two officials? three? 117, all speaking in unison?), though it sure doesn't sound like official-supplied detail. Anyway, Norman can be counted on to come up with a peculiar conclusion, which seems to be serious, not a joke. Huh, Normie? The problem here wasn't that this apparently irreplaceable orchestra patron was over 50, but that he took his new i-Phone to a concert without knowing how the damned thing works -- and then when the alarm went off just sat there like an ageless lump.


In the first not-quite-six minutes or so of this clip, Lenny's comments are superimposed over a rehearsal, which gives way to the actual performance at about 5:55, just a bit before "the final page" of the score, the point where our earlier clip began, at about 6:15 of this clip. The trombones' entrance at 3:18 of this clip would be roughly the point at which Alan Gilbert restarted the New York Philharmonic to conclude Tuesday night's paused performance.


Instead of one of Lenny's four commercial recordings (at least four that I know of, including the video one), I thought we would hear a live performance with the Boston Symphony from the Tanglewood Festival, July 1979.

MAHLER: Symphony No. 9 in D:
iv. Adagio

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein, cond. Broadcast performance from the Tanglewood Festival, July 19, 1979

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