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January 11, 2012

Alan Gilbert stops NY Philharmonic of Mahler's Ninth when cell phone erupts

UPDATE: The comments to this post, including from people who were at the performance, have been spirited and fascinating. Feel free to add to them. Maybe out of this conversation we can figure out some truly effective -- and legal -- measures to prevent such incidents. -TIM   

Alan Gilbert is being hailed on the blogosphere after Tuesday night's incident at Avery Fisher Hall. 

When a cell phone went off during the hushed, poignant moments of Mahler's Ninth Symphony, the New York Philharmonic music director stopped his orchestra and glared at the offending patron sitting down front -- just as ...

Mahler himself would have done.

Paul Pelkonen's Superconductor blog report is extremely specific, right down to ring tone (marimba) of the iPhone in question. The ringing erupted "just 13 bars before the last page of the score."

An eye- and ear-witness reports that Gilbert asked the villain, "Are you finished?" Hearing no response, the conductor said, "Fine, we'll wait."

By that point, the audience made its annoyance known with shouts of "Kick him out" and the like, according to the witness, as well as some rhythmic clapping.

The ringing finally stopped and the phone owner indicated that the device had been turned off.

The conductor then addressed the audience, saying that, although it can be worse to stop a performance under such conditions, "this was so egregious that I could not allow it." Amen.

Gilbert resumed the performance at a suitable point before the place where he had halted, which, I assume, allowed for a reasonable form of musical closure for the audience and players alike. (I would have been tempted to do the whole finale over from the top -- assuming no overtime issues for the orchestra.).

It seems that the only possible solution for this sort of increasingly common threat to the sanctity of concert halls and opera houses is a blocking of phone signals.

I don't know for sure if such technology is available, affordable or feasible, but authoritarian regimes manage to block all sorts of transmissions, so there's got to be a way to handle this ugly threat.

I say we need an all-out movement in this country, with protest marches, sit-ins and everything. The rallying cry: Take back our concert halls! We could even call it the Key Party. Or maybe not.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:36 AM | | Comments (45)
Categories: Clef Notes


Good for him. Those cell phones should be checked at the door.

dear tim, while it is egregious that cell phones occasionally go off during concerts, and unfortunate for Maestro Gilbert to have to stop the orchestra, I would suggest this man will never again forget to turn off his phone. To block cell phones would probably be costly and difficult so instead perhaps simply sending someone onto the stage before performances to emphatically make an announcement with a trumpet fanfare might get total cooperation. Best, Robin

There you go being reasonable, Robin. I prefer being hot-headed, but I do take your point. I suspect the guy was frozen with a mix of fear, embarrassment and entitlement while the phone kept ringing, all eyes on him. And, yes, he will presumably learn his lesson. But announcements are made in a lot of places, often after intermission as well (Washington National Opera does that, for example), but it is still no guarantee, alas. TIM

It is worth noting that cell phone jammers are illegal. The FCC's website has more info on this:

Please correct typo: "...extremely specific, right down to ring town (marimba) of the iPhone in question." Did you mean to write "ring tone," instead?

I applaud Gilbert for his bold action. Honestly now -- we're talking Mahler's Ninth, here!

Whoops. My typing never was worth a danm. Or damn. TIM

I would also like to point out that blocking all cell signals would be a rash course of action. There are some people like doctors and police that need to keep their phones on in case of emergencies. They should, however, keep them on vibrate.

I was at this concert last night and what this article fails to mention is that the cell phone did not simply go off, but had been continuously ringing for at least 10 to 15 minutes. It was only as the movement was coming to its most intense section that Mr. Gilbert could no longer let it continue and chose to put the integrity of the work over making this other man uncomfortable.

Needless to say, the audience went wild for Mr. Gilbert's final applause.

It's a wonder there wasn't bloodshed before it was all over. Thanks very much for the report. TIM

There is a very loud and clear announcement made by Alec Baldwin (seriously!) at the beginning of every Philharmonic concert and at the post-intermission resumption. He states that everyone should silence all cell phones etc as a courtesy to the players and audience. Nobody could possibly miss this. I was there last night, and I can vouch that the ringing persisted for several minutes before Maestro Gilbert paused the performance. I don't know the back-story on why this person didn't silence their phone before the pause; but even after the pause, everyone in the audience was looking all around them to see who the offender was before the ringtone was silenced (it wasn't obvious where the source of the sound was). The same problem exists in movie theatres and at the opera as well. I once sat beside a woman in the 11th row center at the Metropolitan Opera, whose ringtone, a popular 80s tune, played during the final moments of Isolde's Liebestod, as the curtain was slowly falling. Too many people are clueless, discourteous, or just plain rude. More needs to be done about this. If cell phone signals could be blocked for select performances, I think that would be a good compromise. It's a huge problem for those of us who truly love music and the potential near-sacredness that can be felt during an exceptional performance. Unless you're a doctor on call, there's no reason why you can't sit still for 2 hours without having to Tweet your favorite celebrity or take a call from your friend, who you'll be hanging out with in 3 hours anyway.

Can I get an Amen, everybody?? Thanks very much for sharing your experience and feelings. TIM

I am not aware of many people under the age of 40 who consistently leave the ringer on anyway. Most people work in an environment all day that would not permit personal phone calls, so the offender could have been a realtor or a doctor or broker where their phone would be off vibrate.

Unfortunately, there are those people who tend to be older that literally do not know how to turn off their phone or put it on vibrate. If the phone was going off for that long, it is likely the patron might not have known what to do. Too many times - during church, during performances, on public transportation, in the movies - I have seen those of a certain age who will turn their phone around in their hands as it rings, not knowing what to do to get it to stop.

I applaud the conductor for having the courage to stand up for the art, and I also applaud the audience members who correctly demanded the right to enjoy a beautiful work of art without unreasonable interruption.

There is absolutely a way to block the signal and it is quite affordable. Whether it's safe or legal is a different question.

What about charging a fine? A MAJOR fine ($500? Too much? Too little?) Or, it could be equivalent to 10x the cost of the most expensive ticket at the concert. Have a security guard locate the offender and escort them out.

This might be a way to fund all sorts of non-profit arts organizations in the future!

Good luck with that. But I like it. TIM

The cell phone was ringing much longer than the last page. Possibly for as long as 10 minutes. Assuming the patron turned it off when the orchestra crescendo'd only to be wronged when the infectious ring-tone was still heard at those much softer parts. Alan recognized this early and Glared in the direction of the noise while still composing. He did this twice only to realize that the problem wasn't being solved he then decided to take action.

Sincerely. Mystery man from the 2nd Tier .

Some "genius" suggested that a doctor or policeman in attendance of such a concert might need their phone in the event of an emergency–now, pardon my sarcasm–aw gee!!! We could not ever have survived being without a cell phone, like our cavemen ancestors from the pre-1990s. To this "genius" I say, "You are not thinking." Do as they did before CPs–tell your office or the ticket office, that you are a doctor or police official and leave your seat number with them (and your family) in case of an emergency. If it is a bonafide emergency, the police will assist and actually send someone into the theater to collect you. The idea that we must be reachable by phone 24/7 is pure arrogance, in my opinion.

I've recorded my own cough and set it as my ringtone. I also use an Android app that sets my phone to silent when my calendar tells it that I'm busy. I double check the phone when I'm at a performance.
Perhaps it's overkill, but at least I'll never deserve Alan Gilbert's glare.

Cool. TIM

Actually there IS technology that blocks Cell phone reception within a certain number of feet around where the event is taking place. They have it in California in a Church. I am a church organist and when I make announcements before Mass begins, i have to say "Please turn off all electronic communication devices so as not to disturb the sanctity of the Holy Mass". I can't believe i have to do that when everyone entering that church should KNOW WELL ENOUGH to shut those damned things OFF! it's pathetic!

While it may sound wonderful to block cell phone signals, it could cause serious problems if any wireless technology or microphones are being used for the performance. For example, in major musicals there could be as many as 50 wireless microphones on the performers as well as wireless signals for sound effects or communication systems from front of house to back stage. Audiences simply need to learn that there is a time and place for everything, including audible cell phone signals, and be careful to turn off the sounds!

At English football matches, each seat has a listed responsible person so if anyone throws an object onto the field, or makes racist comments, the offending party and /or that seat's season ticket holder can be disciplined or banned. This person should not be allowed to resubscribe for a year or be banned for a half season. There aren't too many worse times for a phone to go off than the 4th mvt of Mahler 9.

Interesting in reading the comments that, despite the fact that the phone apparently had rung several times, no one next to or around the person owning the device bothered to speak up at the time. Too bad no one was willing to speak up.

It would be great if someone got a video of the incident at NY Phil. All you'd need to do is show that video before all concerts begin, maybe accompanied by text saying "This is what happens to patrons who don't turn off their cellphones". Either that or trap doors under all seats that lead directly to the Rancor pit!

I was also present at the performance last night. I was seated just across the aisle from the man who was in the first row, first seat and I heard the phone from the time it began "ringing", getting louder and louder until it stopped and then started again (the caller kept calling?). There were at least three call cycles before Gilbert stopped the performance during the fourth. (He had glared down at least once by then.) Neither the man nor his female companion made the slightest movements to indicate that they heard or were aware of a phone ringing - while those behind them and to their left where I was sitting were desperately trying to figure out where the noise was coming from and to stop it. He seemed totally oblivious and really never accepted responsibility for his phone, but eventually slid his hand into his left pants pocket and got it turned off.
I was unable to enjoy the conclusion of the performance because I was not sure it was really off to stay. Additionally I was in Gilbert's line of sight and at one point I think he thought I was the offender. It was tremendously upsetting and disruptive. I think the man (or his phone) should have been ushered out of the hall. BTW, I also believe that he was connected in some way to Michelle Kim who is the Asst Concertmaster and who was chatting with him during intermission. She was directly above him on the stage.

I believe it is illegal to block cell phone signals, as that would make it impossible for owners to call 911. By law, all phones must be allowed to call 911 for emergencies, and no impedance can be purposely installed.

Wow. If it had been going off for 10 minutes per some reports, then the people sitting next to this buffoon are as culpable. Who doesn't nudge an idiot like that and whisper 'turn the f***ing phone off" ?
I've done it and will continue to do it. I refuse to be disturbed by fools like that.
Everyone makes a mistake turning off a phone now and then, but FFS if it is going off for 10 minutes, you haven't made a simple mistake you're just being an inconsiderate worthless jerkoff.

There should be a HEFTY fine for cell phones that interrupt a performance that other folks have paid good money for. That might be an effective deterrent.

I attended the final round of the Van Cliburn piano competition a few years back and this same scenario happened. Though the poor performer was a competitor, so they were not afforded with the luxury of being able to stop and glare at the offender. HOWEVER, the very well-trained staff , seeing that nothing was being done, discreetly entered the hall, located the person, and physically removed them from the rest of the competition. Before the next competitor took the stage, when the announcement was made to silence all electronic devices, the whole audience cheered and applauded.

There was a post on another report of this incident, where a commenter suspected that this was an alarm, not a call, on the iPhone, maybe to remind him to take a pill or something. Apparently, even when put on Silent mode, alarms on iPhones will still make noise, and continue to sound if they are not turned off. It is quite possible that the elderly gentleman either didn't hear it, or didn't believe it was his, since HIS phone was dutifully put to Silent mode. This is a problem with those devices, as users have to be confident that silent MEANS silent!

require those in need of packing personal communicators check them at the door - they way its done with personal fire arms in Texas

It seems that the NY Phil/Mahler 9th was jinxed. Besides the usual coughs and sneezes during the Saturday evening performance at Fisher Hall, an audience member couldn't wait for the 4th movement to die away. He shouted BRAVO while the final resolution was still faintly audible and Gilbert's hand was still in the air. Gilbert dropped his hand while the perplexed audience was unsure about when to applaud.

Lets just teaching manners and propper behavior again. When a student's phone or watch go off in class nothing is done. They think it is a right.

Every time a critic uses a company logo to belittle a noisemaker in print who probably didn't know any better, I feel a little more sympathy with editors who decide critics are unnecessary. This is an irresponsible use of an eminent position for a bully pulpit. You're better than this Smith. Isn't there a looming demographic crisis in the arts world which you should be covering?

While a cell phone ringing during any moment where there is a gathering of people is an annoyance of epic proportions, it tends to be no worse than persistent coughing, or someone talking when silence is really appropriate.

So does it stop simply with the silencing of cell phones, or does it go on to include those with a cold and attending coughs, allergies that cause sneezes, and those who are mindless of others and must consistently regurgitate verbiage? Oh, and lest we forget those who doze with sonorous snores!

Before cell phones there were the beepers and before all this there were the interruptions caused by those coming to get that all important Doctor of Captain of Police!

So it seems there may be a question of expectations here, the like of which would be difficult to determine legitimacy. Life is what it is, and in this imperfect world there will always be the personification of that fact, at those most inopportune moments.

Bravo Alan Gilbert! Anybody who can't leave his cell phone turned off should skip the concert -- and the same goes for anyone with contagious colds or constant coughing. The composer, the conductor, and the musicians all put a lot of work into this music. They too have rights. Alan let the rude cell-phonist off easy. I wouldn't want that guy mad at me -- but he's a great conductor.

Noise polution in a place of magnificent sound!!!!!

I was conducting a MAGIC FLUTE once when a cell phone went the pit. The offending player was too embarrassed to reach for it and it rang and rang. The speaker scene in FLUTE is not nearly as sublime as the end of the Mahler so we went on.

That guy is lucky he didn't end up with a baton through a vital organ. TIM

I've seen a lot of posts about this on various blogs and the general consensus is that the person must have been hard of hearing. While I wasn't there and, honestly, even if I had been, I still wouldn't be able to say for certain - but it sounds to me like this perhaps might have been deliberate. All of the blogs I've read have stated that the offender was sitting right in the front, pretty much right in front of the conductor and that it was an alarm that had been set for that specific time. While it's certainly possible that the person was hearing impaired and simply didn't hear it, I don't think that's as likely, given that the person had no trouble hearing the conductor in the end when he finally realized who it was and asked them if it had been turned off and if they were certain it wouldn't ring again.

Like I said, I wasn't there, and no one other than that person really knows what happened and why they didn't turn it off, either before the performance or once it started ringing - but I think it's at least a possibility that this person had a personal vendetta against either the conductor, musicians, piece or composer and set out to sabotage the performance. 5 minutes before the end of a 90 minute symphony, during the most exposed and emotional section would certainly be an ideal time to effectively ruin the performance. :-/

Hmmmmmmmm. A vendetta. I love it. This could develop into a full-blown conspiracy -- and a movie deal. TIM

Many times I have witnessed cell phones ringing and the offenders staring intently at the stage, so as not to have to admit that they are the culprit. The fact that his or her pride and unwillingness to admit responsibility is more important to them than everyone else' enjoyment of the concert REALLY yanks my chain.

Perhaps major orchestras should hire snipers:
- "Offender targeted"
- "Take the shot... Take the shot!!!"

In all honesty, as much as I sympathize with the outrage (being an orchestral conductor myself), I cannot help but feel for this humiliated sr. citizen who according to reports was simply clueless about operating his new iPhone. Just sad...

I add my "amen" to Mr. Gilbert for refusing to put up with this. Almost as irritating are the candy or cough drop wrappers that some patrons continually rub between their fingers in an apparent unconscious habit.
I now keep my cell phone on vibrate at all times, mainly to eliminate the possibility of making such a mistake myself.


I actually think that there really is a larger issue here than just cell phone usage. Audiences are becoming more and more clueless and inconsiderate, and it's not just with cell phone use. I'm not sure that the rise of this kind of rudeness isn't directly related to the lack of musical education people fail to receive these days as a part of their basic education. That, in turn, is related to the decline of many of our cultural institutions.

As an example, let me relate an incident that I experienced recently.

I was attending a recital by an incredible young pianist (Soheil Nasseri); he was performing some incredible pieces (including a relatively rarely heard Schumann piece as well as the Beethoven Hammerklavier sonata). Even more interesting, he was performing these pieces on an 1850 Broadwood piano (approximately the instrument for which these pieces were written).

The audience and I were absolutely fascinated with the performance, which was stunning, and by the nuances of this beautiful instrument, so different from modern pianos.

Unfortunately, during the middle of the performance, a woman and her daughter, seated right in front of me began conducting an animated conversation, moving around in their seats to look at each other. They even pulled out a camera and began recording/filming the concert, even as they continued their conversation.

Tim, I couldn't believe my eyes and ears!

Although I should have simply reported it to the authorities, I'm afraid I lost my temper. After the performance and applause were over, I gave the couple a pretty acid lecture about courtesy, lack of consideration, and my opinion that making a recording of a performance is essentially theft.

Can you believe it? They were self-righteously indignant with me for objecting to their behavior!

Mr. Nasseri, bless his heart, was graciousness itself and claimed to have been so focused on his performance that he had barely noticed.

Amazing, sad,and so, so true. At the Spoleto Festival during a chamber opera performance, a woman talking incessantly got on my nerves so much that I finally reached over and tapped -- I swear, tapped -- her on the shoulder. We were all sitting in the second row in a very small theater, so I was not going to say anything to her, adding to the distraction. Just a tap. She glared at me, but shut up. Then, the moment the performance was over, she started screaming at me that I had punched her -- much to the bemusement of the audience trying to file out of the theater. Her husband, who had been the object of all her chatter during the opera, never said a word as she ranted and raved. My partner finally said, "Listen, lady, he didn't slug you, but if you keep this up, I'm going to." That did the trick. The woman's indignation just bugged the heck out of me and still does, to this day. No one, I guess, is ever wrong, ever inconsiderate. Jeeesh. TIM

By the way, I freely admit it wasn't my place to be lecturing anyone about manners. I shouldn't have lost my temper.

I'm afraid what drove me over the edge was when they started humming (loudly) along with the performance during the encore..... HATE that....

Your experience sounds very similar to mine. I guess that all we can really do is grin and endure.....

I was at a performance just this morning where they made the announcement to turn off anything with a blue screen, gave an explanation as to why (theatre performance where subtleties of lighting were an essential part of the show), then added a special side note especially to the teachers, who are apparently the worst offenders...that sums up a lot. We are the teachers. All of us. How we individually behave is what we teach others.
BECAUSE of the interruption, you are left with a memory which won't quickly fade, for better or worse. In the end, you can either let it bother you to the point where you lose your manners or you can think of how much Cage might have enjoyed it. (That's how I keep my sanity and my temper...and hopefully that's the behaviour my kids will pattern: high expectations for myself and patience with others.)

Why do some people commenting assume it is older folk who are at fault? in my experience it is the younger people who can't stop their constant texting who are the worst distractions. It's impossible to ignore the bright lights of a cell phone in a dark theatre.

I would have reqiested the offender to come up on stage and apoloize to the audience, conductor, musicians and Mahler. That failing, I would have barred the offender from all future concerts.

Probably, though, had I the power, I would have marcdhed the offender outside and had him/her shot.

The NY Phil should take a page from the Alamo Draft House Movie Theater in San Antonio, Texas. No if's ands or buts, if you are seen using your cell phone for calls or texts, you are escorted out immediately, no refund. Period.

FIRST OFF, it probably wasn't even a call, it might have been an alarm going off, so everyone fighting over blocking cell phone comms in the room needs to stop arguing over that. The stupid offender was probably deaf or something because how can you not notice your phone going off? I had a friend attend the concert in the sixth row I think and he was very upset and with good reason. This idiot with the cell phone should be fined and never allowed to go the that place again. Good thing I wasn't there because chances are that I wouldn't be allowed to go there any more due to what I would have done that guy after the concert.

The guy says it was a new iPhone his company had just given him and that it was an alarm. He says he has been a subscriber to the orchestra for over 20 years. I wonder, too, if someone didn't program his new alwarm as a practical joke. Not very funny.

Here's what a friend wrote to me that happened the next day:

The cell phone owner was a longtime subscriber to the NY Phil and owner of two companies. He had been given a new iPhone the day before. The obvious alarm was turned off, but a secondary alarm (which he did not know about nor how to turn off) went off. He talked with Alan Gilbert the day after and was forgiven.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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