Winter woes: Conductor tosses lozenges at coughing Chicago audience

Winter woes: Conductor tosses lozenges at coughing Chicago audience


norman lebrecht

November 25, 2013

Our colleagues at Chicago Classical Review were there:

On Saturday night, Michael Tilson Thomas … went offstage and emerged with two large handfuls of loose cough lozenges, which he tossed underhanded into the main floor audience seats.

What else happened? Read here.



  • Joe Shelby says:

    heh. they could have used this at the Proms a few years back with all the coughing during Rattle’s performance of the Webern/Schoenberg/Berg Orchestral Pieces.

  • Misha says:

    The coughing was particularly bothersome as this was one of the most intense and inspired performances of M9 I have ever heard.

  • Geraldo says:

    Tilson Thomas’s irritation is understandable, but I think that his reaction was childish.

  • Robin Mitchell-Boyask says:

    On the same podium Solti used to keep a few lozenges tucked in a pocket of his tails, and, at opportune moments, would suddenly spin and angrily hurl them at the offending audience members.

  • José Bergher says:

    Wonderful. They should do this also at the Metropolitan Opera.

    • MWnyc says:

      Hm. Interesting question.

      Which operatic characters could toss cough drops to the audience while still remaining more-or-less in character?

      Figaro and Despina leap to mind …

    • John Kelly says:

      Jon Vickers was singing Parsifal at the Met and got fed up with the bronchial audience – at a suitable break (not an intermission, a break in his vocal part) he bellowed into the house “Shut Up with your damn coughing.”

  • Robbie says:

    Remember when Alan Gilbert stopped and started the performance because of a wayward cellphone? Was also Mahler 9…

    Out of the whole orchestral canon, is this the work (particularly the last movement) that is held most sacred?

    • sdReader says:

      MTT 28½ years ago stormed off the Hollywood Bowl podium during Mahler 8, no less, interrupting the music I had paid to hear, in response to aerial bombardment.

      • E. Cumming says:

        Yes, Michael has a history of being unlucky with sounds beyond his control. He did the same thing at the Hollywood Bowl that same summer, during a performance of Tchaikovsky Four, which was marred by helicopters, searching for someone on the loose.

        • Joshua Robison says:

          As I remember it, MTT had to stop a performance of Tchaikowsky Four with the LAPO Institute Orchestra because the beeping of a car alarm in the parking lot behind the Bowl caused the young violinists in the back of the section to lose their place in the third movement. He did not leave the stage, but they did have to start the movement over after the alarm was shut off.

    • José Bergher says:

      Remaining in character would be a secondary consideration. Plenty of people would be available for such a noble mission: even Desdemona after being done with; or Othello himself; or the Commandatoreadore after being done with by Don Giovanni at the beginning of Act 1: or one of the orchestra players doubling as lozenge thrower. No scarcity of candidates from among soloists, orchestra and chorus. Also from the audience, where the fortissimo coughers could be done with by stranglers specially chosen for such a delicate (and noiseless) purpose; no need for uncouth procedures such as stabbing, shooting, decapitating (as is done with Jochanan’s kopf), or poisoning.

  • Allen says:

    MTT has always been a childish conductor and these actions only prove that he has not grown up. If he wants to act like that, then he should stick to conducting student orchestras or pops in a laid-back place where they won’t mind him being silly. If he only wants to make serious music for well behaved audiences, then he can try to make his living in Vienna if they will have him back. Otherwise, the CSO should not allow him to be a representative of Mahler.

    • MWnyc says:

      I think MTT is making a healthy enough living in San Francisco that he doesn’t need to worry about Vienna.

    • Alexander Hall says:

      I applaud MTT’s handling of an obviously recalcitrant audience. I perfectly understand that some people cannot always suppress the urge to cough. What I take very great exception to, however, is the very large number of people in concerts in London and elsewhere who cough away without even putting a hand to their mouth, never mind a handkerchief or sleeve. Quite apart from the germs that are sprayed around concertgoers in the vicinity, it is indicative of bad upbringing that some people think they are entitled to add their elements of cacophany.

    • John Kelly says:

      “MTT has always been a childish conductor”???????????? Huh? He may not be a/my/your favorite conductor but to disparage a conductor in this way demeans this blog. It’s just food fighting.

  • Charles Lansing says:

    Why don’t they just provide lozenges in a basket before the concert for people who think they may need them, instead of angering audience members when we need them most?

    • Petros Linardos says:

      I strongly suspect that a lot of the coughing has to do with boredom.

      I once attended a wonderful concert where I didn’t like one of the pieces. During the piece I didn’t like I found myself wanting to cough. (I didn’t , because I knew better.)

      • Reggie Benstein says:

        I agree with Petros. Yawning can be a way of distancing ourselves from a situation, so why not coughing.

      • John Kelly says:

        I strongly suspect that a lot of the coughing has to do with lack of consideration for others. Like talking in the cinema………………

    • Yuan says:

      They do provide free cough drops in the lobby in Chicago.

  • Frannie Loren Schwab says:

    Symphony Hall in Boston leaves bowls of them in the lobby.

  • I don’t know if they still do it but Ricola had two large buckets at the side entrances of the concergebouw – this is an opportunity for prime marketing!

  • Michael Schaffer says:

    Funny that most people don’t seem to notice that in most concerts, the *musicians* on stage rarely ever cough.

    It’s easy to get a cough lozenge or cough drops when you have a cold and simply not cough. But a lot of people just don’t give a fl**ng fl*ck if they spoil he music for others.

    Can I say fl**ng f*ck here?

    • Theresa says:

      There is a biological reason for this … when on stage you have a certain amount of adrenalin flowing, and this suppresses coughs and sneezes quite effectively unless you’re in full-blown flu mode in which case (hopefully) you’ll have stayed home.

    • Allen says:

      speaking of “spoiling the music for others”, that is exactly what this conductor has done. not only did he spoil the music for the entire audience for the rest of that concert, but now he has tarnished his own reputation and what the world will think about him ever conducting Mahler in again in the future. I know I will never risk attending any of his concerts any more only to be forced to witness such a circus!

      • Michael Schaffer says:

        Don’t worry – the “world” doesn’t really care if provincial Chicagoans get offended by MTT flinging medical candy.

        The “world” judges MTT’s qualities as a Mahler conductor based on his qualities as a Mahler conductor.

        I am from a part of that “world” in which concerts and concert etiquette is taken rather seriously (Berlin) and I see nothing offensive about what he did. I find the unrestrained coughing offensive.

        I find MTT’s unconventional ways rather refreshing. He is also a great music educator. People always babble about how people about how people like David Garrett or André Rieu bring more people to classical music, but they don’t, they just cheapen it down. MTT is both a serious musician and an effective communicator. I think he does much more to bring people to real classical music than many others.

  • Yuan says:

    I was unfortunately in the first few rows of main floor Saturday night and was actually greeted with cough drops by the conductor unexpectedly. I thought there might be some emergent situation and felt worried about the conductor when he left the stage. And when he came back with hands full of cough drops and decided to toss them to us, we were simply appalled by his action. There was applause from people sitting at other sections, but not from ours. Both the lady sitting next to me and I were feeling that MTT’s action was very disrespectful to the audience. Yes, there were coughs during the first movement but I would not say it was more than usual, as it was an extremely cold winter day. Ironically, although the coughs were minimized during the 2nd and 3rd movements, during final tranquil passages from the last movement, someone from the lower balcony kept coughing. “He was right about the coughs. But there was much more elegant ways to remind people. And you know, some people just do not care.” That was what I said to my friend after the concert.

    • John Kelly says:

      Actually all the coughing is is disrespectful to the musicians who have worked hard and long to bring their best to performance. Not everyone who is coughing is sick or needs to cough. Trust me and 45 years of concertgoing on that.

      • Yuan says:

        I am not trying to defend coughs. I am trying to say there are better ways to address the issue.

        • E. Cumming says:

          We as conductors know those pieces that will need help from a quiet audience. I agree with Yuan, and for a set of orchestral songs written by the fine Persian composer, Reza Vali, I knew we could be in trouble for one of the songs requiring a canvas of silence. Before we played the piece, I said a few words to the audience while ushers went up and down the aisles with cough drops.

          When performing a multi-movement work, a preemptive strike is the best way to go.

  • ruben greenberg says:

    Given the advanced age of most concert-goers, one can but rejoice at the fact that they are still alive and coughing.

  • Eddie Pensier says:

    I was downstairs at the CSO and witnessed MTT’s display on a TV monitor; at one point, he lurched backwards off of the podium and almost crashed into the cello section; now THAT would have been a lovely way to honor the Mahler 9th–with a pratfall worthy of the Three Stooges (one of the stagehands reported that MTT was thrown off balance by a lozenge which was pitched BACK at him from an irate audience member).

    Coughing during a performance is infuriating, and most people who do it clearly don’t even think about their destroying the music for everyone else in the hall. It’s pathetic. However, there are much more constructive ways to make people aware and begin to change the habits and culture of the crowd— a serious, sincere and thoughtful ADDRESS to audience at that point from the podium would have been the way to handle it.

    MTT’s solution was really classless–and potentially dangerous. I’m definitely not a fan of drop-of-a-hat lawsuits, but MTT’s reckless actions would have been ample cause, if an audience member had been, say, hit in the

    eye with one of his projectiles. I hope the CSO management had a good talk with the super-star.

    • Kristi French says:

      I do agree that an address to the audience – perhaps at the same time they are asked to kindly turn off their mobile devices – would be the more proper and effective way to handle this situation. CSO does hand out cough drops, but they don’t “cure” a cough. If people are made to understand how disruptive it is from the onset, they would cough more quietly or make a better effort to suppress it if at all possible. The thing is (ever to see both sides of the issue), what is one supposed to do if one had tickets – which aren’t cheap – for months to attend a CSO concert and come down with a head cold and cough the week of the performance? Not go?

      • NYCG says:

        That’s exactly what I have done the few times I had a bad cold. Not go. I’m happy to donate my ticket to a cash-strapped music lover — I still remember how excited I was when I was a student and someone gave away amazing seats at a wonderful Carnegie Hall concert. Spread happiness, not your germs!

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      Eddie Pensier says:

      November 26, 2013 at 9:27 am

      “MTT’s solution was really classless–and potentially dangerous. I’m definitely not a fan of drop-of-a-hat lawsuits, but MTT’s reckless actions would have been ample cause, if an audience member had been, say, hit in the eye with one of his projectiles. I hope the CSO management had a good talk with the super-star.”

      Funny how some people here say that MTT’s action was childish but I really can’t think of anything more childish than silly and childishly offended reactions like this.

  • Reggie Benstein says:

    Noises during performances (this includes the dropping, rattling and turning pages of the programme, whispering and fidgeting as well as the coughing and cell phones) is the reason I don’t attend as many concerts as I used to.

    Orchestras are afraid to educate the public of etiquette and art of deep listening for fear of alienating audiences.

    Somehow a solution must be found.

    • Derek Castle says:

      Reggie, you’ve hit the nail on the head! Programme fiddlers, sitting next to me, are my latest pet hate. And the ever-so-slow unwrapping of cough sweets (these can BTW be obtained in non-crinkly wrapping). I don’t know how many winters I want to go on making the effort. Of course, listening to live music in a fantastic hall (in B’ham) is an entirely different experience to sitting at home listening to a performance set in aspic.

  • Michael says:

    If the cough drops were wrapped in cellophane, then they would make a lot of noise when being unwrapped. A Catch 22 situation.

  • Robert Kenchington says:

    Look. Coughing comes with the territory in classical concerts. The intense silences of Mahler’s Ninth are especially prone (along with the flute solo in the finale of Brahms’ Fourth or the frequent pauses in Bruckner symphonies). It stands to reason that someone, somewhere in the audience will have a cold/tickley throat/block sinuses etc. – even in the summer months. If one person coughs it makes everyone else think they have to do the same. It’s part biology, part affectation. It’s certainly part of the so-called ‘experience’ of live music-making. If you don’t like it, stay home and listen to a CD.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      Has the territory evolved in the last couple decades? I’ve been attending concerts since the 70s and have witnessed the coughing problem to have gotten worse since the 90s. Am I alone?

      On the other hand, I’ve been hardly noticing in less “mainstream” classical concerts, such as early music. Could it be that symphonic concerts, star recitals and opera attract more audiences who come for reasons other than the music?

    • Reggie Benstein says:

      No way, audiences were much more respectful in years past.

  • Sarah says:

    Yes, and people try to unwrap them SLOOOOOWLY so as to keep the noise down; but all that does is spread it out. How about unwrapping one or two before the performance to have them at the ready? Seems to me that the waste of a few cough drops would be worth it.

  • CA says:

    Mahler 9 it would have to be, right? Best piece of music EVER written. Similar thing happened when Berlin Phil did this piece in Carnegie Hall in 2007: Simon Rattle addressed the coughing audience after the first movement, explaining that this piece begins and ends in silence so please be quiet; he then took his hankie out and put it over his mouth, then turned to continue the performance. One audience member coughed about two seconds too soon after the adagio finale had finished, breaking the mood quite abruptly and before I could fully come to terms with the emotions I went through in that most awesome music EVER. Thankfully, I was still in a state of suspension or I would have strangled the offender. Oh, and I was lucky to have had a friend playing in the orchestra on that occasion.

    • John Kelly says:

      Was at that performance. Wonderful it was too. Lots of annoying coughing in movement 1. Rattle, clearly irritated, explains that a handkerchief eliminates a lot of the noise. I said to my neighbor, “now watch, there will be no handkerchiefs but no coughing either”…………………and it was for sure reduced very greatly. This has been going on for ever, Stokowski used to lecture Philly audiences about coughing in the 1920s (among other infractions like leaving during the music and bringing packages to put on the stage during post-shopping matinees)……………

  • Michelle says:

    I carry my own cough drops for the unexpected “dry throat” so I don’t cough. If I’m really sick, I stay home. I’ve had the “chronic cougher” sitting behind me that should have stepped out, but didn’t. That was annoying.

  • Larry Grika says:

    Stokowski said to a coughing audience: “I’ll be gone for the next two weeks. I hope you will be much better when I return.”

    Larry Grika

  • Marc says:

    Has anyone ever tosssed a cough drop at Violetta during the final act of “Traviata”? I remember Segovia demonstrating for his listeners by placing a hankie over his face and emitting a polite little cough. Good luck with that, Andre! While we’re discussing rude concert behavior, how about those who turn their printed programs into fans. Drives me crazy!!!

  • I don’t get it. If you show up late they don’t seat you until the music stops in a lot of halls, but once you’re in you can do what you want to disrupt the performance for others?

    Why would he bother? If Thomas thought it was that much of a problem he should’ve signaled an usher to escort the offender out – they get paid for that. No reason why he should waste his time. And it isn’t unnecessarily harsh, as coughing is equal to talking.

  • Marjorie says:

    I remember back when the ushers for MTT’s home band, the San Francisco Symphony, used to pass out cough drops to the audience as you entered Davies Hall. I don’t think they do that any more, though. I have no idea why they stopped. Maybe because somebody complained about the noise as people unwrapped the cough drops?

  • Spen says:

    And it isn’t unnecessarily harsh, as coughing is equal to talking.

    Talking and coughing both annoying but I can’t really blame the coughers, because they probably don’t want to cough themselves. I agree with the rest of your post.

  • Bergmann says:

    Years ago, large plastic containers filled with cough lozenges were in the lobby of the New York State Theater for audience members who had not thought to provide for themselves. Good advertising for the company and lovely gesture by the management. As to the remark about MTT’s grandparents, I can only smile remembering the story he told my mother and Jessye Norman years ago at dinner during the rehearsal period of Mahler No. 2 in Buffalo. During a marital spat, the couple kept the local Yiddish press full of saucy tidbits of the other’s alleged transgressions until they finally made up and reaped the publicity rewards. They would have been in the wings handing their grandson a slingshot!! He did the right thing.

  • NR says:

    As a musician who has worked with MTT several times, this type of behavior is common. He gives himself a bad name with both musicians and audience members when he does childish, inappropriate things like this. And believe me, this is not even close to the bad behavior he presents in rehearsals.

    On another note, as a musician, the coughing/throat clearing/dropping of the program/cell phone etc. is just something that happens. If you’re a focused, well prepared musician, these things don’t bother you. What bothers me is when I’m onstage and see the audience reacting strongly towards someone who is coughing or accidentally making a lot of noise. That is far more distracting and only brings even more attention to the person making noise.

  • ed says:

    MTT was damn lucky that cougher was not Mr. Creosote from “The Meaning of Life”.