What should a conductor do in the event of disruption?

October 23, 2014 by norman lebrecht


Alan Gilbert famously stopped a Mahler 9 when a cellphone went off.

A German maestro asked for an intruding bird to be shot.

Michael Tilson Thomas asked a front-row lady with a fidgety child to leave her seat.

Proportionate? Appropriate? Necessary? One astute Slipped Disc reader asks: What would Karajan have done?

Good question.

Karajan would never have addressed an audience member directly in the middle of a concerto. If he found the situation intolerable, he would have quietly stepped off the podium for a handkerchief break and ordered someone in the wings to do something about it.

We have no record of any such incident with Karajan, either because audiences in those days were better behaved, or – more likely – because conductors were trained to turn on the tunnel vision and ignore anything that was not their concern.

Such as a fidgety child in the audience. That’s a house management issue. Or a matter for the audience itself to influence. Not a baton job. Karajan would have shut his eyes to it.


Karajan eyes shut


MTT, we think, made the wrong decision. People have conducted in far worse circumstances than this – in traffic noise, warfare, freezing cold and blazing heat. The conductor is there to get on with the job, keep his mind on the music and lead the best possible performance.




Comments (37)

  1. R2D2 says:

    Totally agree.

  2. Andrew Condon says:

    Sir Adrian Boult, and many others, faced far worse distraction than this during WWII. They would no doubt have carried on regardless.

    1. Andrew Condon says:

      Charles Dutoit would keep going as well – and his distraction was an earthquake!!/story/listen-la-philharmonic-keeps-playing-during-earthquake/

      1. Papageno says:

        I was there for the earthquake concert at Disney. Dutoit wasn’t even slightly shaken (no pun intended). The Phil and LA Master Chorale held up pretty well, too — considering the circumstances.

      2. Irmgard Bittar says:

        Dietrich Fischer Dieskau did continue with his concert in Berlin when all lights went out during an alarm during World War II. I think Tilson Thomas did over react.

  3. Raymond Clarke says:

    Unless there have been two reported instances of a bird disrupting proceedings by German conductors, I think the comment above about the intruding bird may not be quite accurate.

    Apparently there was a tiny intruding bird sitting in the rafters during the sessions for Tennstedt’s EMI recording of Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 with Garrick Ohlsson, and the conductor became so irate at the intermittent tweets that the producer (Suvi Raj Grubb) announced to the orchestra that he had phoned to bring in a marksman to shoot it – though actually he hadn’t. This bluff by Grubb had its intended effect, as even Tennstedt now felt sorry for the bird and promised that he would henceforth tolerate the noise provided Grubb would cancel the marksman – so they just edited around the tweets.

  4. Olaugh Turchev says:

    Already said: well done MTT.

  5. Doug says:

    Did the bird at least get to die with its SS uniform on?

    1. Gerhard says:

      10 Godwin points to your presumably large account!

  6. Doug says:

    I wonder if that allegedly fidgety child was a potential advocate of the symphony & classical music. I can’t think of a more effective way to kill new audiences.

    1. Sophia says:

      Thanks for saying this Doug. I’ve played in several concerts and watches more and can honestly say we should get over our extreme elitism and get more inclusive.

  7. Abendroth says:

    In the late 90s, Riccardo Chailly was the first in my memory to stop a concert because of a phone ringing. It was in Paris, Salle Pleyel, during the Adagietto of Mahler 5 (if I’m not mistaken). William Christie is also known for his strong reaction to such disruptions, when a phone rings during a concert he usually stops the music and shows the door to the person responsible for this disruption. But this is quite understandable, I mean, when you have the most suble pianissimo on stage, and a phone rings with Carmen’s Overture or the Kleine Nachtmusik, this is just a complete lack of respect.

    Of course, this was not an issue under Karajan. Phones ringing are today the more important source of concert disruptions. Yes, the coughs are sometimes annoying (mainly during chamber recitals, or worse during a harpsichord recital, and some people really dislike this and show their disapproval, Pierre Hantai for instance). They existed, too, during older times, as preserved on live recordings…

    Children (agitated or not) ? I do not recall such an issue before.

    With time, some noises even give even more charm or even tension to what we hear. American planes above Berlin, in Furtwängler’s RIAS recordings. Or Nazi woman protesting against Carl Schuricht, during the Lied von der Erde in Amsterdam…

  8. harold braun says:

    Appropriate reaction,MTT!I remember Kurt Masur stopping a NYPO performance of Shostakovich 5 because of a coughing inferno.And,yes,there was Alfred Brendel,ouf course!

  9. J. says:

    Thanks a lot, Mr. Tilson Thomas. You are right.

  10. Time to set the record straight on this instance.
    BTW I think throwing cough drops at people is more “rock star” than “classical.”

  11. Bob M says:

    I say ignore it with this edict: if one should disrupt the others, they have the right to pummel that individual until they stop said disruption.

  12. Halldor says:

    I was once house manager for a recital by a certain veteran classical pianist. Two men came in wearing dresses, bought tickets, and seated themselves in the front row. At the interval, I was summoned to the pianist’s dressing room. I had to ask the cross-dressers to leave, she insisted. They were “disgusting” and she would refuse to play the second half unless these “creatures” (“I cannot call them people”) were removed from the hall. I explained that I would not do this; she insisted that she would not play while they remained. I told her that we could not compel her to play, and if that was her decision, I would be have to inform the audience that the recital was over and the reason why.

    Fifteen minutes later, without any further comment, she walked onstage and played the second half of her programme.

  13. David Boxwell says:

    Sviatoslav Richter turned out the lights on the blighters and barrelled on regardless, with just a spot on his score.

  14. Dave T says:

    MTT was right. Yes, as a skilled and professional musician he should adopt tunnel vision concentration. But he did/does not stop the music for his benefit, he stops it for mine and that of the audience. I have tried to shush fellow noise making audience members but sometimes that has no effect. Summoning an usher is very disruptive in itself. Sometimes only the authority of the conductor, and the respect he/she commands, can make things right.

  15. 110 says:

    Probably is more acute to have a disturbing person in the front row than let’s say row 16.
    Children so young should not attend performances at night when they are tired and restless.It is totally unfair also for the listeners,who pay a fortune to be there in the front rows.

    1. John says:

      Don’t think I’d pay a fortune to be up that close….

  16. Takis says:

    Thielemann stops Tannhauser overture after a few seconds due to cell phone ringing, turns to audience and asks to close their phones. This in Athens in 2004 [?].
    And Brendel stops and glared angrily towards the audience without a word due to coughing. Ough… we feeled like schoolmaster catch us in the middle of some prank…..

  17. Anonymous says:

    Once, when Stanley Drucker, former NYPhil Principal Clarinet, was performing a concerto with the orch. his son, drummer for the rockabilly group The Stray Cats, came with his entourage to hear his father play. Urban legend has it that they sat in the front row drinking beer during the concert and were very enthusiastic listeners. It made for an interesting and diverse symphony audience that night and absolutely no one asked them to leave or sit somewhere else!

  18. Nick says:

    Similar subject but slightly different context. During a performance at La Scala, Maria Callas famously cracked a high note. The claque had a field day with a chorus of booing.

    Callas stopped and immediately raised her arm as if to command the gallery to shut up. So surprised were they that this is what happened. She indicated that the conductor should stop the orchestra, walked to the front of the stage, spoke to the him, returned to her former position whereupon the aria restarted. This time she hit the note bang in the middle. And this time the audience cheered her to the rafters!

  19. Robert Kenchington says:

    Oh there are many occasions I can recall. Carlo Maria Giulini was the master at dealing with noisy audiences. At the start of the performance he would take his bow, turn to the orchestra, stand absolutely still and wait for silence. The listeners got the message every time. Nevertheless if there was a disturbance he would carry on regardless. I remember an especially stifling Edinburgh Festival concert when an audience member fainted in the choir stalls and had to be carried out on a stretcher by two St.John’s Ambulancemen. Wrapped in the mysteries of Brahms’ Second Symphony, I don’t think Maestro Giulini was even aware of the incident.

    Riccardo Muti was more vigilant. During a concert in Warwick with Radu Lupu, a man in the front row died of a heart attack. Muti brought the orchestra to a standstill and the deceased was carried quietly away. Of course, such incidents occur in mid-performance on stage e.g. Sir Thomas Allen famously fainting in the Royal Albert Hall during ‘Carmina Burana’ under Previn and the LSO. There, an audience member actually came to the rescue and took Sir Thomas’ place and saved the day. All on live television!

    Although mobile ‘phones were not an issue in Karajan’s day, he did have a marked aversion to flash photography. He once asked his inventor brother if he could develop a laser beam he could then wear on his forehead so he could turn round and zap the cameras. After all, he used light sabres in ‘Fidelio’ after seeing ‘Star Wars’…

  20. DLowe says:

    Disproportionate reaction from MTT;disproportionate reaction from Slipped Disc.

  21. Archaeopteryx says:

    Joyce DiDonato asking the audience after a cell phone disruption “Was that Rossini calling?”
    Is it a generation issue?

  22. Roberta Day says:

    I remember Neville Mariner stopping for coughing in the audience (even if it was in the middle of winter in Minnesota)!

  23. Mr Oakmountain says:

    Just for fun:

    A trumpet instructor of mine told me a story that when he played the famous off-stage Trumpet call in Beethoven’s Fidelio Overture, an Usher came and wrestled the trumpet from him because he thought the trumpeter was disruption the concert. In later concerts the trumpeter always had himself guarded by another usher as not to have to experience this again …

  24. Mr Oakmountain says:


    Actually a friend of mine claims that Karajan stopped a performance of Mozart’s Requiem once. One of the bassoons or bassethorns messed up its entry at the very opening. HvK realized he couldn’t save this one, stopped the performance, turned around and glared at someone in the audience who had coughed at that moment. Then he started again. Most of the people present never realized he was covering for a member of the orchestra. Nice though!

  25. Gaffney Feskoe says:

    A related question is what does a conductor or soloist do when felling indisposed in mid-performance? Such instances make the audience nervous and I am sure there are many examples,
    The late Rafael Fruhbeck de Buurgos, always the professional, in his last concert felt ill, called for a chair and soldiered on for the duration.
    And speaking of Tilson Thomas, I remember when he was the Associate Conductor of the Boston Symphony, he was called on to complete a performance of the Mahler 9 when William Steinberg could not proceed with it. This may have been MTT’s offiial debut.
    And while not the same, Dame Julia Myra Hess played on in her lunch time concerts at London’s National Gallery during WW2 while the bombs fell, earning her the admiration of Kenneth Clark, the concerts sponsor who stayed put in the front row.

  26. Herbert Pauls says:

    And then there was Horowitz, who once apparently kept on playing in the dark when the power in the hall went out.

  27. steve says:

    The Osborne biog of Karajan mentions an incident where a slab of ceiling falling into the auditorium (?)and Karajan not being aware of this as he was so absorbed. This wasn’t a wartime performance.

  28. Anne says:

    How about if orchestras designate a kids’ gallery at the back of the orchestra section on certain nights, or at dress rehearsals? Some parents will inevitably miscalculate their kids’ ability to last through a concert. Everyone in the room suffers for this. But it’s nice if kids get to see performances. Educational programming is often stupid.

  29. Martin says:

    Karajan once conducted in Arosa (or somewhere in that area of Switzerland. My mother was attending and told me this story.

    The concert started but people were still walking in. Karajan stopped the playing, turned around and waited. Then said “is everybody in now? Ok. We start again.”

  30. Anna says:

    Prevention trumps intervention. If reminders are posted or announced regarding etiquette–turning off cell phones, being courteous to performers and other audience members, etc– most people will comply. But if intervention is necessary, the conductor would have to weigh which choice would be the lesser of two evils: will it be ultimate less disruptive to ignore the audience behavior (or errant bird) and let the performance continue uninterrupted–or is the audience behavior so distracting that it’s ruining the experience for either the performers and/or audience members?

  31. Novagerio says:

    According to Karajan, what he seemed to appreciate the most about the Scharoun Philharmonie was the fact that the seats behind the orchestra were sold out before those behind the conductor. All he had to do anyway was to close his eyes and excercise his spell. Apparently, his magic worked out on a mesmerized and needless to say, well behaved audience – wich I don’t exactly think is the case with MTT!…

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