Kyung Wha Chung: The damage

Kyung Wha Chung: The damage


norman lebrecht

December 04, 2014

The fullest and most closely observed account of the soloist’s outburst at a coughing child has been published by the critic Evan Dickerson on the MusicOMH site. Evan writes:

The interval between the two movements was marked by extended and full-throated audience coughing, which noticeably irritated Chung. Just as Chung was about to resume playing a child coughed repeatedly in the slip stalls, prompting Chung to suggest that the parent bring the child back to a concert when older. Even if Chung was somewhat on edge at that moment, her interjection did nothing to calm the situation as shortly after this I witnessed a parent and two young children voluntarily exit the hall. Throughout the remainder of the concert Chung was to repeatedly fling glances towards where they had been sitting.

But the concert’s over. Is there a lasting aftermath, other than poor reviews?

Well, Kyung Wha’s well-planned, strongly supported and long-desired comeback has been painfully stopped in its tracks. It is impossible not to feel sympathy for her. She should not be demonised for unguarded remarks made at a moment of high tension. Let’s hope she bounces back.

However, there will be consequences:

– some young persons may never be seen again at a classical concert.

– some artists won’t change their attitude towards the paying public.

– the public image of classical music as forbidding, restrictive, elitist, user-unfriendly, uncomfortable, potentially embarrassing and generally up itself has been massively reinforced.


kyung wha chung rfh 2014



  • Warrior says:

    Some young persons will never be seen again at a classical concert?
    It would be ridiculous for someone who enjoys concerts to never again attend a performance because of a comment by Miss Chung.

    On the other points I think you are just reaching way to far.

  • ruben greenberg says:

    Ms Chung should maybe come back to the concert when older.

  • gerald brennan says:

    Performing artists have to draw the line. It IS a line, see? What is not disruptive to you may be a deal-breaker for me. Is coughing OK but crying not OK? Cell-phones?
    No one can enjoy a concert with either vibe in the background — visibly annoyed artist, or disruptive noise.

    “– some young persons may never be seen again at a classical concert.”
    Good. They have no business there if they can’t be quiet.

    “– some artists won’t change their attitude towards the paying public.”
    Because the public is paying is no license to dish out abuse to the artist, and to listeners with some sense of civility.

    “– the public image of classical music as forbidding, restrictive, elitist, user-unfriendly, uncomfortable, potentially embarrassing and generally up itself has been massively reinforced.”
    Good. It’s not for everybody and shouldn’t be. Will that attitude kill it? No, but, admittedly, it would diminish it hugely as a business. This is a reflection of the dumbing-down and increased insensitivity of our culture. Art music should NOT enable that.

    • Greg Hlatky says:

      Note to the general public. Gerald Brennan, a representative member of the world of classical music, thinks you’re disruptive, abusive, stupid and have no business setting foot in a concert hall unless you come up to a level of decorum that his kind would not grant to you.

      In short, you’re a pest to him and his kind. Do him and his kind a favor and don’t attend any live performances ever again. Just don’t go.

      • NYMike says:

        Note to Hlatky: Please enjoy the ringing of a cellphone or the loudest ACHOOO during the dying moments of Mahler 9th last movement. Oh, and bring all your friends.

        • Greg Hlatky says:

          No, thank you. I don’t think I can come up to your standards for attendance. Enjoy your empty concert hall. Bring your friends. If any.

          • Bob says:

            Mr. Brennan is little more than the kind self-obsessed, snobbish bore whose behaviour is frequently lampooned in the media and only serves to damage the music that he doubtless only listens to in order to impress his ghastly, dreary middle-class friends at dinner parties in their miserable little mock-Tudor terraced hutches. Classical music is art. So is heavy metal. So is rockabilly, for that matter. You know what? Art is worthless unless it has an audience. So somebody coughed, so what? This kind of behaviour just hurts the whole classical genre.
            This jumped-up fiddler needs to take a chill pill and relax.

          • Patrick says:

            You two argue….I’ll be at the concert.

  • rui deng says:


    Gerald Brennan [redacted: abuse] I think to call a coughing child ‘dishing out abuse’ is wildly outrageous.

    Not only that but, well, the public paying puts these artists in halls and venues around the world, at the top of the record charts etc. [redacted: worse abuse].

  • Simon S. says:

    “the public image of classical music as forbidding, restrictive, elitist, user-unfriendly, uncomfortable, potentially embarrassing and generally up itself has been massively reinforced”

    It might be worth noting that education, culture and manners need not be (and are not) a question of wealth. I have often had the non-pleasure to be confronted with wealthy people without any of the mentioned characteristics, especially in concert halls and opera houses, and vice versa. Just remember the glorious old days of workers’ movement with its tremendous respect for arts and culture.

  • Bart says:

    Let’s be clear about this. The part in italics is Evan Dickerson’s pretyy much factual account. The part after that are somebody else’s personal opinions (presumably Norman Lebrecht’s), which, on those facts are in my opinion way way over the top.

  • James Shlaganov says:

    How many of you were actually at the concert?
    I was sitting around 5 seats away from the child….if you call laughing, clapping along, giggling as coughing, don’t try to justify the child’s behaviour. I would also lose patience as a performer…. It seems that nobody is aware of what actually happened that evening but an avalanche of social media news has taken it’s own course and knows better.

  • anon says:

    I had an experience similar to this in Berlin, Thomas Quasthoff performing Winterreise about 6 years ago in the big hall of the Philharmonic. They had clearly put him there because he could book it – regardless of the sense of intimacy needed for that cycle. Anyway, the large, international audience was fairly…. inattentive, coughing, twitching, rustling about. After the first song, applause. Quasthoff and half the audience hissed at them. After the second song, maybe 2 or 3 people tried to applaud, and more audience hissing. After the third song, only the sounds of coughing, at which point Quasthoff said in English, “Excuse me, can you please stop coughing after every song!?” It was so hostile — and the feeling among the audience, between the true believers and the heathens… my worst concert experience. I was so uncomfortable — so I can sympathize with those at this Chung concert.

  • Michael Pearson says:

    Unrestrained coughing, cell phones ringing, wrist watch alarms, talking, unwrapping sweets, children too young to enjoy a concert, bored and irritated and sometimes ill are all examples of what has to be endured in a concert hall. As a performer it is deeply annoying but even more so as a member of the audience. Much stuff and nonsense is being written about artists getting cross about such behaviour and perpetuating the myth of classical music concerts being stuffy and elitist. I don’t buy any of this and I certainly support anyone, artist or member of the audience who makes a stand against unacceptable behaviour in our concert halls.

  • Prix d'excellence says:

    Has anyone considered why KWC should wish to grace the British stage again. After an absence of 12 years this is the best welcome we could muster. Shame on us all ! Why should she worry ? She has a career, a recording legacy, an eminent teaching position at one of the best music schools in the world, namely the Julliard, along with several other high level positions. Does she really give a stuff about any of your opinions ? I guess not, just as much as she probably does not read concert reviews. A very eminent musician told me years ago that they did not read reviews. When I asked “Why not?”, they smiled at me and said, “If they (the critic) could do what I am doing they would. It’s because they can’t do what I’m doing, that they do what they do !” If I am honest, I’ve heard this too many times now. Is it arrogant ? maybe, but if you have a great talent, and been recognised internationally on the concert circuit for making great music, then it is the music that guides you, not the opinion of someone who has not made it, and wants to brain wash others. What we need to do is thank KWC for opening the can or worms, which is long overdue, in what is called etiquette in the concert hall. Have we come to listen to great music, to experience a very special ambience, or have we paid to interact with the performance by adding all manner of obligati, not to be found in the score !! Maybe it is time to look at our behaviour and ask some serious questions. If KWC blacklists London we have only ourselves to blame. I await “The legend departs” posters around town !

    • Erik says:

      The whole world is so worried about that she might not return! I would never forgive the rude audience and the child, which didn’t respect her authority!

    • MWnyc says:

      Well, artists mostly shouldn’t read reviews. Critics aren’t writing for the sake of the artists.

    • Halldor says:

      The odd delusion, so frequent amongst performing musicians that everyone else in the world is simply a failed musician. And yet, while a critic creates a wholly original piece of prose, the musician is merely reproducing, more or less successfully, someone else’s work. If you wanted to be mischievous, you might ask – who’s the genuinely creative artist here?

      Strange, then, to experience such condescension from one to the other.

  • Peter says:

    Interesting juxtaposition of stories concerning a Korean violinist, and a Korean orchestra, conducted by the violinist’s brother.

  • Halldor says:

    So…according to numerous accounts, from both critics and online commenters who were present, the audience in general was particularly noisy.

    And yet Ms Chung chose to single out a child.

    There are many, many different ways that she could have handled this – I’ve seen artists as least as great as Ms Chung defuse out the whole problem with a polite, friendly appeal to the audience in general at an appropriate break in the programme. To pick on the most vulnerable audience member present, in front of a packed hall, to the extent where paying audience members feel uncomfortable remaining in the hall, has nothing to do with art: it’s bullying. I’d find that sort of atmosphere far, far less conducive to enjoying music than any amount of coughing.

  • Greg Hlatky says:

    Let’s see if I have this straight. Exposure to classical music is important for children. On the other hand, they shouldn’t go to any concerts until they’re older. Got it. Any other business this stupid would deserve to go bankrupt.

  • Prix d'excellence says:

    I’m amazed there were any children there at all. I thought the cultural highlight for them these days was Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and others. To have managed to drag any away from their addiction to Social Media is quite remarkable, highly persuasive parents !
    I was lead to believe that bed time was after “Magic Roundabout”, which was before the 6 pm News. What were these children doing up at this time ?!! I attended, and the children I saw looked pretty fed up by the end of the Prokoviev. Is subjecting a child to this sort of concert really going to enthuse them to be concertgoers in later life ?


    I was there, close at hand (row H of stalls) and – for the record – I believe KWC said “perhaps you should get her some water” not “perhaps you should bring her back when she is older’

  • Larry says:

    Rude audience behaviour can spoil concerts. But then again, so can rude behaviour from the artist on the stage. Yes, some people need to learn how to keep quiet. At the same time, while Chung may be a great master of her instrument, it seems that she still has a lot to learn too: about how to engage appropriately with her audience.

    • JJC says:

      Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? I come down firmly believing that the audience must respect the music, the performers and their fellow listeners. No disruption, no problem. And no excuses…

      • kea says:

        Couldn’t agree more with JJC: no disruption, no problem.

      • Larry says:

        Yes, in a perfect world, the whole audience would be perfectly attentive and silent from the start to the end, with no noises, disruptions, or distractions at all. But until that glorious day dawns, anyone stepping onto a stage in front of an audience of hundreds will, very occasionally or very often, or somewhere in between, need to deal with the fact that they are not performing to an audience of angels, but of human beings with all their fallibilities and imperfections. It is part of your job as a performer to cope with that. It’s not going to be your favourite part, but then again everyone has bits of their job they don’t enjoy. It would appear to a be a part of the job which Chung needs to work on.

        There are several strategies open to you, as an artist. You can politely explain the problem and ask for the audience’s cooperation. You can stand at the front of the stage not playing, implicitly delivering the message “I’m not starting until you’re quiet”. If the situation is intolerable, you can go off stage and let the stage manager restore some order. Losing your temper and publicly ridiculing a child is a very long way down the list of recommended strategies.

        • Greg Hlatky says:

          This is an eminently sensible comment. Artists have to deal with the audience as it is, not as they want it to be. That doesn’t mean they have to leave it as it is, but tact, it’s been said, is the art of telling people to go to hell so they look forward to making the trip.

          • JJC says:

            Greg, I like that one! But there is another that says ‘If all else fails, lower your standards’. I fear that the latter is too much in play here, to the detriment of us all…

        • JJC says:

          Larry, you have stated your case well and very cogently and there is nothing in it with which to disagree. But I maintain that it is a two-way street. Over the span of my 41 years on the concert stage, human nature has not changed but concert audiences most emphatically have. Rare, very rare, is the performance nowadays which is not marred by selfish, inconsiderate, clueless behavior in the house. This was not always so. My sense is that rationalizing it is the wrong way to go.

  • derek clements-croome says:

    Well there thus seem a lot of attention on this small incident in exaggerated terms by some. As someone who was nearby the child has said the child was not just coughing but showing other signs of distractive behaviour. Someone behind me was coughing and I found it difficult but imagine playing in your return concert and perhaps feeling tense—as many great performers can feel—I and many of us would feel it interrupting our intense concentration. The odd cough OK but this was a continual stream of noise.
    I think the parents should have thought of other listeners too not just Ms Chung and escorted the child out until it was better.

    All this wallowing has distracted attention from a memorable concert. A tense Mozart but the last 2 movements of the Prokovief were shimmering with those rapid scales perfectly timed and placed. After the Bach the Franck found Ms Chung at the top of her form.
    Delicious sensitivity, nobility ,magisterial sweep with a wide range of tone colour marked out a distinguished performance of a great artist.
    Rather than choose showy pieces for encores she played 3 popular classics with every note and phrase meticulously felt and imbued with colour from her fine Guarnerius violin.

    She will return as will children to hear her.

  • Mark says:

    Whether “perhaps you should get her some water” or “perhaps you should bring her back when she is older,” Ms. Chung’s response was certainly more measured and less alienating than “Shut up with your damn coughing!” (cf. Jon Vickers, Dallas, 1975) This is not a new point of contention.

  • Olaugh Turchev says:

    Another storm in a tea pot with definitive pronouncements… Someone here needs to feel important, claim they are all about saving classical music from its stuffiness and yet insure a permanent damage to the listening experience through the white whale of “democratization” and virtually letting the public do whatever during a concert.

  • Neil van der Linden says:

    I side mostly with Mrs Chung. Her ‘comeback’ must have been a tense affair, with a lot of nerves. I can imagine that at some point you are not concentrating on what to say in between two movements of a piece. It would have been better if she would have said it a bit more indirect. But the coughing must have been very annoying for the rest of the audience too. Although Haitink once during Four Last Songs with Elisabeth Söderstrøm had the wit to ask the audience to at least cough in between the movements, not during.. but a conductor has more distance…

  • David says:

    Maybe when a few more symphonies go into bankruptcy, we won’t be having this discussion.

    • Michael Endres says:

      So true.
      Alone this month we had 3 that went into liquidation:

      Michael Haydn: Nr.16
      Bruckner 1
      Krenek Nr.3

      We need to stop this trend.

      • Dave T says:

        Michael Endres:
        I understand the Gliere 3 will be getting that government bailout.
        Unfortunately, the Fibich 3 has had to merge with the Tubin 6.

        • Michael Endres says:

          Fibich 3 and Tubin 6 are an excellent match , no problem with that .
          Sad about Gliere though,but he is Russian and at the moment …
          But progress has been made :
          –private sponsorship for individual works ( ”Cadbury and Bax proudly present… ”)
          –amalgation of unprofitable works ( eg all 9 Vaughan Williams into one practical ”English symphony”)

  • john humphreys says:

    If performing in public be prepared for the occasional irritation…a child coughing disrupting Ms Chung’s communing with Mozart? Get a life lady! A child coughs not for effect but because it needs to cough. At least it wasn’t someone having a heart attack as I witnessed during a performance of ‘Winterreise’ in Birmingham some years ago. Perhaps she would have advised them to defer their mortality until the end of the movement…?

  • Sergei says:

    Many music fans like and want to listen to many players playing a certain piece, to compare. Others want to listen a certain player, no matter what she/he play. I want and like to listen works I don’t know, or I’ve listen only a few times.So, i would never went to that concerto. A Mozart’s sonata, Prokofieff’s first and Franck (!!). No thank you. I think I’ve 7 versions of Franck’s, from Thibaud-Cortot on. Reason why last time I went to a public concerto was I think 35 years ago.

  • William Safford says:

    I am reminded of a Paderewski quote (excerpted from Wikipedia):


    In another incident, Paderewski once recalled, “I established a certain standard of behaviour, that, during my playing, there must be no talking. When they began to talk, I would stop. I would say, ‘I am sorry to interrupt your conversation. I deeply regret that I am obliged to disturb you, so I am going to stop for a while to allow you to continue talking.’ You can imagine the effect it had…”

  • MWnyc says:

    Reading the media coverage and the comments about how tense the atmosphere was and how much pressure Ms. Chung was under, it strikes me that a soloist with her experience ought to have figured out how to handle high-pressure concerts by now.

    If a London recital after these years made her that nervous-making, perhaps she’d have done better to play in, say, Leeds, Gateshead, Liverpool and Bristol first and made London the last stop on a tour. She’d have been accustomed to the behavior of audiences, and with London coming up in a few days, the national critics (or their editors) might not have been inclined to travel to review the first concerts and splash Ms. Chung’s nerves all over the world’s computer screens.

  • 110 says:

    When you want to be your best you need to concentrate to the maximum.
    Any disturbance can ruin a performance.
    Imagine a surgeon tickled by a fly while operating .Would you like to be the patient?
    We always take some candys or a tiny bottle of water to the concerts,it is a great idea.
    Consideration for others is everything!

  • john humphreys says:

    When you look around the veritable sea of grey hairs, Zimmer frames and hearing aids in concert halls these days one should be grateful for a child (coughing or not) being there….
    As an aside to this I gently once asked a woman of seeming elegance sitting behind me if she could desist from repeated coughing during the slow movement of a Mozart sonata (Alfred Brendel). I had two fingers stuck up at me…

  • john humphreys says:

    A warning on Birmingham Hippodrome’s web-site advertising Gergiev’s ‘Ring’ cycle: ‘Please note that children under three are not admitted’….

  • Lucy says:

    I was at the concert and it is surprising all the media criticising that Kyung Wha Chung outburst at ‘coughing/ crying’ child. I am also surprised some journalist admitted he wasn’t in the concert but still criticising the artist’s behaviour.

    First of all, I was sitting a bit away from the child (probably a couple of girls) who told off by the artist but when the incident happened I still could hear they were talking to their parents among others coughing.

    I didn’t like tension created by the artist but I have to say her ‘outburst’ sorted out my own irritation. I am not sure whether Kyung Wha Chung wasn’t focused enough when the concert started or it was audience or me, it was very unsettled atmosphere at the beginning of the concert. I could feel and hear about 5-6 people keep fidgeting; rubbing their faces, twisting their legs, taking things in and out of bags, checking phones, and whenever there is a pause in music, somehow many people think it’s queue for making small noises, coughing, make sounds from throat or take a deep breath… It reminded me of the movie Mr Turner I watched recently!

    There are many people go to concerts to enjoy the music in a civilised environment, but many of comments in the media and posts in this site makes me think, artists wants to concentrate and provide the best music to music lovers and audiance wants to listen to the beautiful live music are delusional and just to make recording music and by CDs!

    In my opinion, people who cannot be still for 10 mins should not come to theatre, those people are probably better to go to picnic concerts.

  • says:

    I don’t understand why people who know that they have coughs still insist on attending a performance. Pass the tickets on to someone else.

  • Dave T says:

    Michael Endres:
    Indeed, sometimes downsizing is the only option. If Vaughan Williams were to spin off some of those lentos into, say, separate serenades and romances, they could be viable. The rump could, as you suggest, merge into one “English Symphony” or could be sold off to interests in Russia and China. Of course, the latter are probably already reverse-composing VW as we speak. We’ll probably be seeing low-cost VW imports in our concert halls at some time, pushing out the genuine English symphony. Soon it will be nothing but cheap Chinese import symphonies. Uch…

  • John says:

    Over the past few years, a number actors have been taking theatre audiences to task for being noisy and disruptive (and in the case of the late-lamented Richard Griffiths, doing so using choice Anglo-Saxon terms that caused something of a stir at the time). These incidents have tended to be sympathetically reported, with no allegations of snobbery or contempt towards their audience on the part of the actors concerned. Why then should it be an issue when musicians, who are under at least as much pressure as actors, turn on badly behaved audiences?

    One definition of ‘classical’ music is that it is music that is intended to be listened to quietly and attentively. It is certainly not a class issue as some here are implying. I come from a working-class background (my father worked in a weaving mill in Lancashire). I was taken to concerts from the age of about 8 and have continued to go to them frequently ever since. In more than 40 years I have never once felt the need to cough or make any other noise during the music. It’s not difficult. It’s just a matter of basic courtesy towards others.

  • Bart says:

    Excellent piece in the Daily Telegraph by Ivan Hewett today Saturday. Perfectly expressed common sense.

  • Jacob Jessen says:

    Being brought up from childhood in a Cathedral/Boys’ Choir I have acquired a practical coughing discipline: If an upcoming coughing would seem completely irresistible, cover your mouth behind your sleeve and staccato-cough sotto voce in minute bursts until it has subsided.
    Now, half a century later, as a listener to concerts I can still apply this technique – if, at all – being overcome by that urge which still would seem hyper-nervous.
    It would be a matter of education, wouldn’t it?
    Making concert coughing a matter of principle would seem a case lost.