Noisy New Yorkers Cause Chaos at Classical Concerts

If classical music is an endangered species, then the principal reason may not be the abandonment of musical education in public schools, the kudzu-like ubiquity of pop music or the indifference of the mass media, but something far more pernicious: the boorishness of concertgoers. We are coming to the end of an extraordinarily robust musical season-one notable for its triumphant airing of 20th-century masterpieces (at the Met, Berg’s Lulu and Janácek’s The Makropoulos Case; at City Opera, Korngold’s Die tote Stadt and Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe; at concert halls everywhere, Stravinsky and more Stravinsky, plus brilliant recent works by young wizards like Peter Lieberson and H.K. Gruber). And yet, what my overloaded ears are most alive with is not the sound of music, but the sound of wheezing.

Has there ever been a season in New York during which so much superb music has had to compete with so much coughing? In February, a magnificent Verdi Requiem, performed by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir in Avery Fisher Hall, was turned into a contest of wills between the young Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck and a woman about five rows from the stage who insisted on punctuating every pianissimo with evocations of Alaska’s seal population. Her neighbors pressed throat lozenges on her; she refused them. An usher came down the aisle and suggested that she take her barking outside; she wouldn’t budge. Before giving the tenor soloist his downbeat for “Ingemisco,” Mr. Honeck paused meaningfully-a silent plea for the cougher to exhaust her throat-clearing capacities then and there. No such luck. She persisted to the end, and when it was all over the same thought could be read on every face in the hall: Stoning would be too good for this woman.

Tubercular eruptions aren’t the only disturbances increasingly encountered at concerts. During one of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s controversial performances of Bach cantatas at the John Jay College auditorium, fisticuffs nearly broke out between a man who vented his objections in an ostinato of mutterings and an enraged neighbor-a music critic, it turned out-who finally yelled, “Shut up, already!” At Dawn Upshaw’s recital with Richard Goode at Carnegie Hall last week, the soprano was obliged to ask the unseen source of a stratospheric whistling noise to deactivate his hearing aid. A few days earlier in Avery Fisher Hall, a program of Mozart, Scarlatti and Schubert by the pianist Christian Zacharias, which should have silenced even the most savage listeners, prompted a steady obliggato of hacking and an exodus of shufflers who seemed to have forgotten why they were there in the first place. When Mr. Zacharias finished playing his encore, a Schubert fragment of sublime simplicity, he wearily snarled as he headed for his dressing room, “Finally, I managed to shut them up!”

How to explain what Michael Henderson, a British arts critic in The Spectator, decried not long ago as the New York audiences’ propensity for “collective rudeness”? Various reasons have been advanced, ranging from prolonged flu seasons to the unusual dryness of our concert halls to the decrepitude of many of the worst offenders. But I think that the local upsurge in unruliness reflects a deeper cultural shift-the loss of a sense of community among arts lovers in general and music lovers in particular. Jane Moss, the head of programming for Lincoln Center’s “Great Performers” and “Mostly Mozart” series, says, “One of the factors is that New Yorkers as a rule tend to be noisy. Another is that people have become so used to listening to music in their cars or at home that they’ve forgotten what it’s like to listen communally. For whatever reason, people no longer view concerts as a shared experience, but as ‘my experience.’ It’s a problem that we presenters have to confront.”

Until now, their only way of doing so has been to put out bowls of cough drops-a courtesy that did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm with which dissonant-throated listeners shattered Webern’s exquisitely calibrated silences during a recent Maurizio Pollini–and-friends concert at the 92nd Street Y. Much more effective, as Ms. Moss agrees, would be a pre-concert speech by an official (possibly dressed as Erich von Stroheim in Stalag 17) asking the audience to refrain from making disruptive noises or movements during the music. Certainly, a well-chosen plea from the artist himself seems to subdue even the most determined noisemakers. The German baritone Thomas Quasthoff pulled it off during his recent Alice Tully Hall recital by sweetly begging his listeners to save their coughing for after the concert “because I love the music so much.”

But the only true remedy lies with the coughers themselves. I am thinking of Vladimir Horowitz’s feverishly attended comeback recital at Carnegie Hall in 1965. After the thunderous applause that greeted the pianist’s arrival onstage, the hall quieted to an unearthly stillness as we waited for him to launch into Busoni’s transcription of Bach’s Toccata in C Major. As I recall, Horowitz was only several bars into the work when, somewhere near the stage, a woman rose from her seat, covered her mouth with both hands and sprinted silently up the aisle. Whatever noise she made after vanishing through the rear exit doors was, as they say, a matter strictly between her and God.