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Ringing tones of famed Philharmonic silenced by ringing cell phone

From Rachel Garrett, CNN
updated 2:43 PM EST, Fri January 13, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • New York Philharmonic performance underscored by a ringing cell phone
  • When ringing kept up, conductor stopped music
  • "Are you finished?" conductor Alan Gilbert asked phone's owner
  • When the ringing finally stopped, the orchestra played on

New York (CNN) -- Add a new one to the irate reactions triggered by incessant ringing of a cell phone: bringing one of the world's great symphony orchestras to a dead stop in mid-performance.

In a disastrous meeting of an old classic and new technology Tuesday night, the New York Philharmonic was performing Gustav Mahler's Ninth Symphony -- a haunting piece some say the composer wrote as he faced his own death -- when a cell phone started ringing in the audience.

Classical music fans were quick to light up Twitter and blogs later with details of what happened in the storied performance hall.

"After the last climax, the movement begins to wind down, toward that sublime last page of the score where music and silence are almost indistinguishable," classical music blogger Michael Jo wrote of one moment when the phone began to ring.

"In other words, just about the worst possible moment," Jo wrote on his blog.

Jo was seated in a box seat on the right side of Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall and could hear the cell phone ringing in the front row on the left side of the stage. He described the phone going off throughout the whole performance but most noticeably at the beginning of the final movement, a particularly emotional part of the symphony.

Jo said Thursday that the most extraordinary thing was that the owner of the phone, an elderly man, did not even move.

Others bloggers said perhaps he could not hear the phone or was too embarrassed to claim the ringing intrusion as his responsibility. The phone rang for three to four minutes straight, leading Jo to believe that it was some kind of an alarm going off rather than a regular phone call.

Jo said New York Philharmonic conductor Alan Gilbert reacted to the intrusion by stopping the music. He didn't melodramatically fling his arms down; rather, he merely dropped his hands, which alerted the musicians to stop playing, according to Jo.

Then, the only sound in the great room was the "Marimba" ringtone of the cell phone, Jo said.

Gilbert turned his attention to the owner of the phone, who was seated on the front row, and asked, "Are you finished?"

When there was no reply, Gilbert said, "Fine, we'll wait," and placed his baton on his music stand, according to Jo.

After a few more rings, the phone was silenced.

But that was not the end of the excitement, Jo said.

In an unusual breach of protocol for the usually buttoned-up crowd that populates classical music concerts, three people shouted their opinions to add more drama to the already tense atmosphere.

Jo wrote on his blog that one angry concertgoer shouted, "Thousand-dollar fine." Two others shouted, "Kick him out!"

Those heckles were met with loud shushes from other concertgoers.

Gilbert addressed the crowd, according to Jo: "Ordinarily, in disturbances like these, it's better not to stop, since stopping is worse than the disturbance. But this was so egregious." He then turned to the orchestra and said, "Number 118," and the audience burst into applause.

Once order was restored, the music took back over, and the orchestra played on, Jo said.

"It was really disturbing, but everybody handled it as well as they could have. The orchestra and Gilbert were professional. There was no lynch mob or concert-hall road rage," Jo said.

There was no official statement from the Philharmonic, but Gilbert shared his thoughts with The New York Times: "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."

Stunned as he may have been, Gilbert's tone was quiet but firm, Jo said, and the conductor was very professional and did not raise his voice or get angry.

People applauded Gilbert's professionalism both in the concert hall and in tweets. Some classical music fans tweeted sarcastic comments like, "Taking the smart out of smart phone" and "(front row)? Best to turn off your cell phone."

Other tweeters got creative, with one calling it "Concertus interruptus: unsilenced cell phone brings a New York Philharmonic performance to a halt."

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