Identified: the man whose phone went off during Mahler's Ninth

Identified: the man whose phone went off during Mahler's Ninth


norman lebrecht

January 12, 2012

He’s been the talk of the net for 36 hours, ever since the alarm on his phone went off during the closing pages of Mahler 9 and conductor Alan Gilbert stopped the performance until he was sure the device had been switched off.

The man was quickly identified by New York Philharmonic officials as a long-term subscriber, and they are being very careful not to disclose his name because, they say, it wasn’t his fault and they don’t want to lose his business. Already, there are philistine tabloids baying for his blood.

Here’s the story (and you read it here first): the guy had just bought himself an i-phone. No longer in the first flush of youth, he was not quite sure how the darned thing worked but he knew his etiquette well enough to shut it off before the concert started.

What he did not shut off was a preset alarm. When it gave a marimba ring, he thought it must be someone else and looked around in irritation. Then he found it was him, and the conductor was glaring at him like a schoolboy who’d let off a stinkbomb. Mortified? Our guy didn’t know where to look.

He’s gone to ground, maybe Florida, and will never live down the shame.

I’m not going to be the one to disclose his name.

But it does make a case for concertgoers, especially the over-50s, to be asked to check in their phones with their coats. Right?



  • Fran Williams says:

    And I wonder why concert halls are emptying out nowadays?

  • Poor man. He must be feeling rotten.

    You can’t ask people to “check in their phones with their coats” – they simply won’t agree to it.

    Well said, Fran Williams! My sentiments exactly. I think this incident has been blown out of all proportion. Can we move on to something else now, please? 🙂

  • Tor Frømyhr says:

    I like Leanne Bear’s suggestion that I read on an earlier post where she suggested that the ushers remind d patrons when checking tickets. The occasional one will get through. I assume it must have been a poor performance as in all that I have read about this concert, hardly a word about the actual performance. No wonder the conductor was distracted. What would he do if somebody had a heart attack during one of his performances, tell the medics to wait till interval?

  • Rhett says:

    For the major concert halls the technology is there to block mobile phone signals. The reasons given for not doing this is that in emergencies perhaps a doctor might need to be called, but surely phones can be blocked apart from emergency calls/like a silent pager? There should be a way to do this.

    • CA says:

      I believe in the US the FCC has ruled that only law enforcement officials can use call jammers. Also, before the advent of cells phones, doctors were called promptly and the situation taken care of. We lived just fine, for the most part.

      • oomy says:

        no, we didn’t live just fine. We can now IMPROVE !

        also, emergency can be something about your children, your house, your parents, whatever.

    • Mary O says:

      No, the signal is either available or not. Emergency calls travel on the same radio frequencies as any other call. And the delay in getting an emergency call out when someone is having a stroke or heart attack does indeed make a difference in outcome–even if it’s seconds.

    • Corinne Orde says:

      Just to remind Rhett that the blocking of phone signals wouldn’t help to prevent a preset alarm from going off, as was the case here. Alarms only need a charged battery to fuel them, not radio-waves. Before the days of cellphones we had people’s wristwatches beeping during concerts — presumably to remind them to take their eye drops / blood-pressure tablets / heart pills etc. Often a veritable chorus of beeps would chime in from all sides on the hour.

    • L Bernstein says:

      This wasn’t a phone call; it was an alarm. Please read carefully. Then comment.

    • MW says:

      Note in the article it was an alarm, so it was generated within the phone itself it had nothing to do with a signal. Though I don’t own an I-PAD, POD, whatever, it appears the only solution would be to remove the battery. That way even if you overlook an alarm, if the device has no battery the device can not go off.

  • CA says:

    Frustrating, yes, especially in a piece like that. Not sure that really anything much can be done about it–except maybe going back to an age/era when we did not have so many freaking gadgets and the expectation to stay in touch or be available 24/7. Life was fine before all this technology took over, if you ask me–AND a lot less stressful in my opinion. But, I am actually even more frustrated myself with office coworkers whose message alerts are going off constantly and they do not know that this is improper office etiquette and disruptive to those around them. You know these calls and texts are all for business, right? Yeah, tell me a new one. Good grief.

    • oomy says:

      think about people who HAS to be reminded to take some medicine or imagine device alarming you of a drop or unbalance in your body. there will be ringing, it’s useful.

      • Martin Locher says:

        This event was extemely unfortunate.

        But instead of trying to lynch the guy and moan about technology, we could all move on and look at the postitive side of this. Due to this incident many more people will know that alarms to not deactivate by turning off the phone.

        Maybe concert-goers could be reminded of this at concerts. “Please turn off your phones and deactivate alarms on the phones and on digital watches.”

  • The EXACT same thing happened to me at a state conference piano recital. I had just purchased a smart phone, and before the concert I put the phone on “silent” mode. I am an older mom with 2 young children; otherwise I would have turned the phone completely off. I wanted to be sure I could be reached in case of an emergency. Anyway, a preset alarm on my phone went off right before the pianist was to begin a piece. I was completely mortified and devastated. Since I knew many people in the audience, I sent a mass email to as many people as I could, apologizing profusely. I was outsmarted by my smart phone. I’m still reeling over this!

    • Frank says:

      Yes, an iPhone will STILL sound alarms on the speaker even with the ringer switch set to silent (vibrate mode). A lot of folks don’t know that, and even I forget it sometimes.

      I guess Apple wants to be sure you don’t miss alarms if you leave the ringer off, but in this case ‘silent mode’ definitely does not mean completely silent.

    • Judy Goldthorp says:

      Same thing happened to me in church (I don’t usually take my phone inside church, but did on this occasion). I had turned the phone to vibrate, but forgot that there was a morning alarm set, and sure enough, it went off during Mass. I was mortified and quickly shut the whole phone down. I usually shut my phone down when at the symphony, and don’t have alarms set for evening hours (when I would attend concerts). I imagine the fellow involved will learn to shut off his alarms before he goes to another concert.

  • mhtetzel says:

    I´m so scared that my mobile suddenly decides to vent its opinion unasked during a concert that I NEVER take it to a concert. It is either left in the car or at home. Better to be safe than mortified.

  • Steve Wehmhoff says:

    To be honest I feel his pain. But then again not a member of the Jobs cult I have my phone set to not do alarms in the off setting.

  • Doesn’t anyone see the marketing possibilities here for symphonic music? We need to commission a composer to write a concerto for piano, cell phones and orchestra, perhaps a suite of pieces–each movement using different cell phones, and secure financial underwriting from the cell carrier for the commission. The concerto can feature several short movements of contrasting emotions, and have this now-famous man from the NY Phil performance as the soloist with different cell phones as his instruments. He would sit on front stage juxtaposing the pianist. The concerto would begin traditionally, for pianist and orchestra, and then the ring tone would go on precisely as indicated in the music–interrupting the flow of the music–interrupting the pianist’s right hand, but continuing with the left hand, as the two have a mimed conversation in silence as the music proceeds, develops, increasing intensity according to the conversation (which we cannot hear) and follow this for each movement. The concerto must end triumphantly as the soloists stand up and clicksoff their phones. Think of audience building, using technology as it is today–something like ‘musique concrete’ perhaps??

    • I wrote a little piece like that a few years ago for a “fun night” at a string workshop. The piece ended with all the cell phones in the room ringing at once!

    • ariel says:

      Brilliant idea !!!!! execept one must be careful of the gallery crowd especially opera crowd who
      would only go for the top range tones and yell brava !! at the wrong time .

      • I particularly like ‘You’ve Got Mail’! There were some earlier late 1990s sounds that should be included for posterity in the piece. Hmm–Michael Daugherty perhaps?

      • Ariel! Don’t you know that in this day and age when they shout BRAVA, because of a high note, there’s technology that can easily raise it up in pitch even higher to further satisfy the mob!? It’s not that difficult to have someone ready to pull the switch whenever there’s a Brava. Eventually, if this kind of Prokofien syncopation is “sequenced” it might go beyond the human range of hearing – and there would have to be protection from various stray dogs (whose hearing isn’t that mute) from coming into the hall – but anyhow, that’s technology.


        But just think, a performer, if using (u-sing) such wonders of technology and audience pleasure detection, could create sequencing and random patterns of phrasing that go with each other (sort of like a political convention)! This way, they could sit at home and just shift certain random parameters on their computer and create enough HD performance material to send virtual concerts of themselves in all directions. Minimalism on Crack! They could have managers billing them as having naturally occurring super powers giving them the ability to give at least 3000 concerts a year (not just 100 or 50)! In fact, there would be no more need for actual humans to involve themselves with this mundane act of creativity, thanks to technology like the stuff which helps you read this on a screen. It’s just: we’re not like “those people”…

  • Petros Linardos says:

    People should at least be strongly encouraged to check their phones with their coat. Unfortunately, in the US many people don’t check their coats in the first place. Maybe this habit should change, but I can’t easily think how.

  • Derek says:

    I don’t buy this explanation.

    There is no present alarm from a new iPhone. (May be someone set one up for the owner.)

    When he heard an alarm ring, why did he think it must come from other’s phone when he has a new phone? Could he not at least take his phone out and check? The phone rang for ‘minutes’, why did he not at least check his phone?

    Is it possible he did not know how to shut off the alarm? Highly unlikely. When an alarm rings on an iPhone, the screen says “slide to stop alarm”. Another button says “snooze”. If he looked at the phone, he would likely know how to stop the sound. Or pass it to someone next to you for help.

    That’s probably why, according the NYT article ( with interview from the conductor, the man never took his phone out of his pocket throughout the incident! ‘Mr. Gilbert said audience members pointed out two people sitting where the sound was coming from. “They were staring at me resolutely,” he said of the couple. Eventually, the man put his hand in his pocket and the ringing stopped.”‘ Sure doesn’t sound like the man just got a new phone and didn’t know how to use it if he can stop the alarm like that!

    This is not about someone making an honest mistake and quickly attempted to address the problem. This person made no attempt to help … before, during, or after. That’s the problem! Didn’t even say sorry to the conductor. Not one bit of apology.

    • Frances says:

      I was at the Mahler 9 concert. Nothing new to say that hasn’t been said, except that the shouting that could be heard from the audience was very limited. Lots of shushing so the conductor could handle it.

      That said, I was at another NY Phil concert a couple of weeks ago, seated in a balcony tier. I was distracted by an elderly woman in the first or second row, center section, stage right, on the aisle (where this man was supposedly seated). She had her iPhone or smart phone on during the concert and was playing with it. It was very obvious in the otherwise dim concert hall. Her face was even illuminated. There was an elderly man with her.

      I thought of them immediately when I heard that the the man with the cell phone this week was elderly.

      The concert was brilliant. Too bad that the finale, which foreshadowed Mahler’s premature death with it’s beauty and sense of quiet, couldn’t have been appreciated better. But then, look for “Mahler 9” as an answer at some point on “Jeopardy”!

    • Suzanne says:

      Well said, Derek. I was thinking the same thing and wondering if something had changed that I missed in print.
      In many Broadway theatres- and it used to be this way at the Met (is it still?)- that a house phone number was provided for MDs who needed to remain available; the head usher would then have their seat number, always on an aisle, and be able to get them. While I think this would be horribly abused by everyone and anyone who felt it necessary to be reachable to provide help for math homework, etc, there should be some system of this sort in place in most houses.
      I routinely hear cell phones ringing away, at least two in every concert (and far more of those horrible watch alarms pinging away on the hour and half hour). The great majority of patrons make no effort to hush the errant devices and sit there, pretending it’s not them, until those around make a fuss.
      Bravo to the soloists I’ve seen who simply stop playing until the noise is quieted and bravo to Maestro Gilbert! Hopefully this event will jog people’s memories.

  • BG says:

    1. It hardly seems a question of being over 50. (I’m well over 60 and I know how to turn off my phone.) Younger people have been known to make noise too.
    2. It seems the old man did know how to turn off the alarm (since apparently that’s what he did). So why did he let it ring for so long?

    • Petros Linardos says:

      BG, it also seems as if at first he didn’t realize it was his. There is a Greek saying that “silk underpants require capable butts.”

      And yes, I agree that there are plenty of “technologically challenged” young people, even in their 20s.

  • I am a conductor who deals with this all the time in concerts. Interestingly enough, I find that medication alarms are more frequent offenders than cell phones, but that is a small detail.

    My solution:

    Before the concert starts, an orchestra representative stands up on stage and asks the audience to reach into their pockets, grab their cell phones, and hold them up in the air.

    Next, this representative will ask everyone, en-mass to put them in silent mode

    Next, everyone puts them away

    I don’t think it is reasonable to check cell phones, as they are expensive. Nobody will do it.
    Also, I don’t think it is reasonable to ban them or block their signal. Too many people rely on them.

    I would say that cell phone interruptions are NEVER vindictive—they are ALWAYS an oversight. SO we should help people be proactive in the silencing of their equipment.

    Just my two cents.

    • Agreed! Our public radio station in Houston, KUHA Classical 91.7, records us and their station manager comes and introduces our concerts. He is quite funny in that he “takes” a call on stage, answers it and then tells the person he is at a concert and turns it off.

      I agree no one intends for it to happen. And it is a definitive part of our anatomy now to have a cell phone or ipad in our hand or bag. I also agree with Jeffrey that we could turn this into a positive. What about pop ups sent to the phone as a reminder? texts. At first I jokingly said we should require all people to give their cell number and staff call them all right before the downbeat!

    • What we forget is that this technology is still so new. Er, David, be careful with that line, ‘everyone reach into their pockets and grab’ LOL! There, I said it!

    • tunesmith says:

      Hi, Mr. Bernard – wonderful idea, but I should point out that you’re overlooking the same thing that the elderly gentleman did. Putting the phone in silent mode is not enough, because the audible alarm can still happen. Better to make that clear to the concert-goers, and then tell them to turn the phones off, as in “off” off – holding down the button and then sliding the slider until the iPhone is completely off. It’s the phone makers that make this confusing, in that they often refer to briefly pressing the “off” switch as turning the phone off, when it just puts it in standby.

  • David Martin says:

    Well it was appropriate that it occurred at a concert dedicated to Mahler, since I understand it was he who introduced the closing of doors once the show had started at the Opera in Vienna. He would have been glaring at the man too.

  • Edgar Brenninkmeyer says:

    I once had to endure, with many others, persistent coughing during the last minutes of Mahler 9 here in San Francisco, several years ago. In the 90s, I attended a concert in Berlin at which Sviatoslav Richter played two Bach keyboard concertos. Everyone in the audience was given a bright orange sheet with a message that ran along these lines: “At Mr. Richter’s request, please maintain silence throughout the entire concert, and refrain from applause until after the end of each work, so as not to jeopardize the performance”. The result was absolute silence and not a single noise from the audience, with ovations erupting after a brief moment of silence after the music was over. I still long for the day when cell phones and other devices are banned from concert halls, and for the day that someone invents a cough drop wrap that is noiseless. Leave the cell phone at coat check. If you have a new phone and do not know to handle it as phone, alarm, or something else, don’t even bring it with you and leave it at home. If you have a cough, stay home. I would favor two full minutes of absolute silence before a concert begins, and again after the last note has disappeared into silence. Richter was known to get up and walk off stage in mid-performance, and not return. It’s time other musicians should do the same. The NY Phil should have stopped playing and Mr. Gilbert should have announced that the concert was over, with apologies and all due respect. That would have made headlines. It also would have put audiences everywhere on notice.

  • Don Drewecki says:

    NL writes: “He’s gone to ground, maybe Florida, and will never live down the shame.”

    Of course he can redeem himself. Simply apologize to the orchestra, conductor and fellow attendees. We’d forgive him.

    As for expensive cell phones, cigarettes are also expensive, yet you don’t bring them into the concert hall just to feel emotionally secure. Maybe we ought to pass out teething rings and teddy bears at concerts to make some patrons feel secure.

  • Mark Pemberton says:

    You’ll be amused to hear that I have just been chatting to a reporter from the Wall Street Journal and she got terribly excited about this report as it means she can get a scoop ahead of the Post. How funny that it takes a British arts administrator and a British journalist to keep New Yorkers up to speed on their orchestra.

  • Lew Holley says:

    I quit going to concerts (for the most part) due to people who don’t know the proper way to wear perfume/cologne. Instead, they bathe in it. In addition to having my olfactory organs assaulted, I didn’t appreciate the lachrimal glands overproducing tears. Now with modern technology, my auditory organs are under attack. If I had my way, you would have to check all technology and stink at the door. If people that are on call need an exception, assemble them in a well ventilated, sound proof booth with speakers for their pleasure.

  • I don’t own a cell phone. I never have. I just never got into it (couldn’t afford it) and am glad I didn’t, by now. In fact, I just ditched my cordless phone, as it was giving me a headache. The regular mundane phone with headset connecting up by a chord doesn’t. Experiments have shown that cell phone signals might be the reason for the decline of bee populations:

    • MJ says:

      Those bee studies hardly sound scientific. “Place a phone next to a hive and see if they come back” doesn’t really conform to any scientific methods. Besides, more scientific studies have pinpointed infectious funguses that are more likely to be a major factor in colony collapse. This article/study sounds like it was carried out by (and is being posted in blog comments by!) some luddites who want a reason to villify cell phones.

    • The article already shared clearly and scientifically shares the information. It says that “The induction of honeybee worker piping by the electromagnetic fields of mobile phones might have dramatic consequences in terms of colony losses due to unexpected swarming.” Nowhere in the article does it say this has been proven to be the cause of the decline in the bee population. It simply says that more experiments would need to be done. It’s a huge problem, the decline of the bee population, and it deserves to be looked into from every angle. I think it would be terrible and tragic to people who have become dependent on cell phones, if this were the case; but that doesn’t mean it isn’t. I think it needs to be looked into. And no, I’m not looking for a reason to villify cell phones. I’m concerned for the bee population.

  • Ludwig says:

    The poor old guy should sue Apple!

    What a poorly designed “feature” of the iPhone!

    Apple is to blame for designing a phone where “silent” mode isn’t really SILENT!!!

  • Paul Ricchi says:

    There are no bad cell phones, only bad cellphone owners.

  • Julian Hallmark says:

    Noise, while performing can be horribly distracting, and ruin the mood of the moment. We have all experienced this in one form or another. For Mr.Gilbert to stop the orchestra, stare at the offender, seems to me an assumption on Gilbert’s part that the offending noise mattered less to the man whose phone alarm went off, than it did to Gilbert. ( Without a doubt, the man whose phone went off was absolutely mortified.) It is this kind of arrogance, the school master reprimanding the schoolboy, that is thinning the ranks of the people who come to hear us play. Noise while performing is frustrating. But I am without a doubt, sure, Mr Gilbert has noisily dropped a program during a concert, or coughed in exactly the wrong place, at some point in his life. Not all mistakes stem from carelessness. Think about all the great press Gilbert, and the New York Philharmonic assoc. would have gotten if he had had a sense of humor about it.

  • Janey says:

    I feel bad for the guy. I hope he’ll continue to go to concerts. Everyone can make a mistake and certainly that’s what this seems to have been.

  • Dilip Menon says:

    Its lik e one would check in one’s gun when one goes in for the concert. A cellphone is not needed during a concert

  • Kerry Byers says:

    If the iphone and Apple are so ingenious why can’t they devise a “total shutoff button” that cannot be mistaken by anyone, that can be activated in the dark without lighting up the screen or scrolling thru any pages, etc….. An idiot proof switch! How hard can that be? Apple???

    • Diane says:

      They have one. You just need to switch the phone off. Patron X simply had his phone in standby, which many people confuse with the “off” mode.

  • Tom McEvilley says:

    I remember a woman coughing her head off during a solo performance by Segovia, in Houston’s Jones Hall. He gave her while, but finally could take no more. He stood up and shouted ” I must have silence- absurd silence,” and walked off stage for a good 10-15 minutes

  • Stacey says:

    He was being post modern. Haven’t they heard of 4:33″?

  • Bob Slapcoff says:

    i was at a Mahler 9 performance in montreal in the 80s and the minute the last filament of sound died off someone yelled BRAVOOO at the top of his lungs. Charles Dutoit, the conductor, held his arms aloft for at least 20 seconds letting the fatuous and self-serving cry echo around the hall and the culprit stew in his own selfishness!

    the following story is true even though it sounds absolutely impossible. Years later, as a professional percussionist, I was hired to be part of the pit orchestra in a small 300 seat hall for a French farcical operetta. As a rule i NEVER brought my cellphone into gigs of any kind but the conductor was going overtime or not giving us sufficient break time so, as the most experienced member of the orchestra I started bringing my only timepiece…my phone. I put it on vibrate and it actually rang during the dress rehearsal but no one ws the wiser.

    To my horror during the 3rd and final performance, some sort of alert went of; loud apreggiated runs that lasted for five seconds. That was loud and long enough to be damaging but not for me to do anything about it (it was under a glockenspiel and too far to reach). The pit was shallow, there was no where to hide and i wanted the earth to swallow me up. Of course all that was happening at this point in the show was a tacet orchestra and a lone actor, stage center and dimly lit, addressing the audience. Only a second after the ringtone stop did i realize what had just happened…written into the show at that point was a cellphone cue at which point the actor was to scold the audience only to realize that it was HIS phone that was ringing.
    My phone rang at the EXACT same time and for the same duration as his. The audience and all us musicians heard 2 cells at the same time…weird but no big deal. i just laughed till intermission at my unfathomable stroke of luck and still can hardly believe it till this day.

  • Scott Colebank says:

    What serious subscriber sits in the front row unless no other seats are available?

  • Kyle McKenna says:

    I love the way everyone, Everyone! takes the guy’s excuse at face value. In fact it’s quite unusual for a marimba tone to be used as an alarm tone–you’d have to set that up specifically. And yes, virtually all phones can sound alarms while silent–that lets you sleep through phone calls. Speaking of calls, I call BS.

  • Dennis says:

    What’s the difference between turning a cell phone off and silencing a cell phone? What the man did was silence his phone. What he should have done was turn it off. A cell phone in the O-F-F mode will not make a sound… Unless you drop in on the floor.

  • Carrie T. says:

    Come on, guys. Don’t make such a big thing of this. It is not worth writing newspaper articles about it. Phones will go on ringing during performances. Belive me: Once in your life it just happens to each of us. As for me, I “chose” Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps. Ouch – but in the end everyone survived it, and yes, I lived down the shame. Why did I not care to shut off my phone? Well, I checked my purse before the performance – and it wasn’t in it! HAHA!

  • Eva says:

    If you don’t know how to use an iPhone, then don’t buy one. I don’t have one because they’re too much trouble, I don’t need to be on the Internet 24 hours a day. A regular cell phone is fine with me.