This evening (because evidently I have finally made the crossover to snooty-elitist-sophisticated New Yorker) I attended the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center. I am currently enrolled in a Music of New York class and we are focusing on the composer Gustav Mahler, whose 9th symphony was to be performed tonight. I am a film major and I am used to learning and creating visually, so the experience of going to the symphony, where the stimulation was to be entirely auditory was to be a new experience for me. I also understood the prestige of Lincoln Center and the proper etiquette that would be required at the symphony so I made sure to dress up and look like a well adjusted classy young gentleman when I showed up to the venue.

Lincoln Center did not disappoint, it was a grand venue with all the classy, sophisticated trappings such as $4 bottles of water and tuxedoed ushers that make you know you’re somebody when you walk through. 

As we took our seats for the start of the show (can you call a symphony a show? A concert? I really have no idea) and the lights went down, the smooth, calming voice of Alec Baldwin came over the speakers and reminded us all to please turn our cell phones off “out of respect for the musicians and your fellow audience members.” I reached into my pocket and turned my phone to silent. Then, in a rare moment of paranoid OCD, I checked that it was on vibrate about 5 separate times over the next few minutes. Had this been a movie, this would have been what we in the film business would call “foreshadowing.”

The symphony began under the expert direction of conductor Alan Gilbert and soon I was caught up in the music, marveling at how engaged I was in spite of the fact that there was nothing to see and not even tangible lyrics to hear, but my experience as a film person experiencing the symphony is a topic for another post. This post is about what happened towards the end of the performance…

In the last movement, right as the piece was building to its big finish, somewhere, in the left front area of the auditorium, someone’s iphone began to go off. Alec Baldwin had asked us so nicely to turn them off and yet someone had not heeded his call! Some terrible soul had forgotten and was now disturbing the performance! Luckily, the music was building and so the ringer was drowned out by the instruments. I think we all hoped that the call would end and that would be the end of it. Oddly enough though, the ringer persisted, consistently for a good 5 or so minutes. Every so often, Alan Gilbert would give the slightest glance in the direction of the ringer as he conducted.

Another few minutes passed and still the ringer persisted, we were getting to a point in the piece where it was very quiet, with only some violins and a few wind instruments playing. It was supposed to be a quiet moment before the big finale and this persistent iphone ring was ruining the entire aesthetic of the piece. Finally, in a move that shocked the whole venue, Gilbert put down his baton and signaled the players to stop. The audience was dead silent for a moment, save of course for the terrible sound of the ringing phone. Then, suddenly there was the sound of a great shifting and rumbling as every single person in the hall reached for their pockets and made sure their phones were off. And still, the phone continued to ring.

"We’ll wait." Gilbert said, sounding more like a chastising kindergarten teacher than a conductor. Myself and those around me cringed in embarrassment, both for ourselves and the nameless dolt who had forgotten to go to vibrate. 

Gilbert continued to stare in the direction of the ringer, that was still ringing! 

"Turn off the phone." He said sternly. 

Still the phone continued to ring. How was this even possible? 

(My theory is the offending phone’s owner fell asleep during the performance, had set an alarm on his phone and forgotten to turn it off, and left his ringer on, leading to this perfect storm of social elite faux pa) 

Whatever the reason, the phone kept on ringing. 

This is when things started to get interesting…

"Get out!" came an angry call from one of the balconies. Call is a nice way of putting it, this shout was almost more of a growl than coherent words. 

"Shut it off!" Came another voice.

The aggression and anger in the voices of these people was palpable. Soon, a whole chorus of “Turn off the phone!” and “Throw them out!” was rising from around me in the auditorium. 

I can’t describe the tension in that room and possibly do it justice, The way the people were shouting made it seem like they were calling for the phone’s owner’s head on a platter. They wanted blood! This crowd of largely elderly, well dressed, seemingly cultured and sophisticated people were shouting and screaming like a group of island natives demanding a sacrifice. 

And still the phone kept ringing. 

The calls got louder, there was a sense of movement in the sector the phone was coming from. What were those people preparing to do?

And still it kept ringing. 

Finally, finally finally, mercifully, it stopped. 

"Is it gonna go off again?" Alan Gilbert asked. I guess the answer was no because Gilbert then turned to the rest of us and said "Normally, when such a disturbance comes up during a performance, the thing to do is to ignore it but this was so egregious that I had no choice but to stop. I apologize."

At this point the place erupted in thunderous, intense, aggressive applause. This ovation was louder than the one when he eventually finished the piece later on. Some people gave a standing ovation.

This got me thinking. Did the crime of the phone going off really match the response it got? Granted, it was annoying and embarrassing for us in the audience and I think Alan Gilbert did the right thing by stopping the show, but I was perplexed at the response of the crowd as a whole. 

Whoever had owned the phone had made an honest mistake, one that just about anyone else in the audience could possibly have made, yet here, at Lincoln Center, listening to The Symphony, this violation was enough to draw the ire and ill will of hundreds of people. Sophisticated people who had come for a night of culture and music and proceeded to be reduced, for a few moments, to the early stages of an angry mob.

In the name of keeping with the etiquette of this classy and cultured event, these people got so worked up they were actually shouting, not cursing mind you, for that would be uncultured, but shouting angrily. And when Gilbert finally dealt with the situation, the response was the cathartic release of pent up aggression. Blatant, almost animal aggression, at the symphony, over a ringing phone. Maybe I’m new to the whole symphony culture but to me it seemed a bit much. 

I’ve been in shows with talking audience members and other disturbances, I know how obnoxious it can be and how its completely unacceptable to do, it just seemed like the response in this case went so much farther than what was called for. As Gilbert said, it was egregious, but it wasn’t horrific, or say “terrible.” 

Had this been a comedy sketch or a scene in some surreal movie, I could have seen things playing out with the phone continuing to ring and the well dressed patrons around the iphone owner finally turning on him and going totally primal. They’d attack him brutally, smashing both him and the phone to bits. Gilbert would get in on it, jumping down from the stage and using that sharp baton of his to do god knows what. The iphone owner would be given a “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” style punishment (for those who haven’t read or seen it, a. you totally should and b, it involves forceful tattooing a descriptive phrase, but I’ll let you figure it out for yourself!) and finally, after the iphone owning pig would be strung up for all to see, the sophisticated folks would readjust their jackets, make themselves look presentable and continue, having saved the symphony from the barbaric savagery of a ringing phone. 

Gilbert would fix his hair, wipe some of the blood off his suit and turn to the crowd saying something like “So uncivilized,” would receive a standing ovation and would then continue on with the conclusion of Mahler’s 9th.

Now that’s just the imagined scenario of this film/comedy student. Fortunately things didn’t escalate further than they did but that was only because the phone finally stopped ringing. Who knows what would have happened if it had kept going…

All in all a nice, cultured evening. Great music, intense drama (both musically and otherwise) and some food for thought. What is acceptable to do in the name of keeping things civilized and honoring etiquette? Is it possible to go too far? I think so, and I think the crowd tonight came close. 

(Oh, and Mr. Gilbert, I mean no disrespect in my hypothetical scenario, I believe you handled the situation the best way possible and conducted a hell of a show otherwise.)

Never a dull moment, can’t wait ‘til I hit up the ballet and we get a streaker! 

Hooray Culture!