Kyung Wha Chung: Was the Festival Hall acoustic to blame?

Kyung Wha Chung: Was the Festival Hall acoustic to blame?


norman lebrecht

December 07, 2014

Fiona Maddocks casts a fresh dimension on last week’s concert disaster, when the Korean violinist was heard to rebuke a coughing child and/or its parents.

Fiona wonders whether Kyung Wha overreacted because she wasn’t used to the hall’s acoustic, which has changed measurably in the dozen years since she last played. She has a point. The acoustic is more variable, less secure.

That doesn’t excuse the soloist’s conduct, but other artists should be aware that, on the RFH stage, what you think you hear is not necessarily what resonates. It’s a tricky recital venue.

Read Fiona here. 

kyung wha chung rfh


  • Linda L Grace says:

    The Philadelphia Orchestra has lowered the temperature in the hall. Although some seem uncomfortable and wear their coats, coughing is practically non-existent even now in winter. My own fear of coughing is much less, I really appreciate this temperature lowering.
    As for Kung-Wha Chung, her impalement of audience infractions such as flash photos during her opening selection only rivals Ricardo Muti’s. I have witnessed both of them, and I would not be messing with them. Ever.

    • SVM says:

      If more artists had the courage to stand up to badly behaved audience-members, maybe audiences would get the message and be more respectful.

      • Alexander Hall says:

        I heartily concur. All it needs is enough sensible people to stand up and make this kind of statement in contrast to those who blather on all the time about their alleged “human rights” to do whatever they like and whenever they like. And protests do sometimes bring about minor miracles: after the recent refurbishment of London’s Royal Festival Hall drinks-holders were installed on the backs of seats, so that countless morons slurped and guzzled their way through musical performances until good sense finally prevailed and they (the drinks-holders, not the morons!) were removed.

  • Sandra says:

    To now say that Ms. Chung’s bad and callous behaviour towards a child’s cough was due to the hall’s acoustic, is really streching this beyond the point of belief. She should be a seasoned performer and she has played in hundreds of halls all over the world. To be so distracted and to be so mean-spirited towards a child who coughed reflects more on her than on any acoustical problems in the hall.

    I personally think that these artists should be boycotted until they come back to earth and behave with understand and tolerance. I agree that if an audience member leaves their mobile phone on and it rings, or if they talk during a performance, then this is unacceptable from their side, but to chastise a child, or any person for that matter, for coughing, in the winter season, tis a clear sign that the artist just doesn’t get it and still remains locked in their classical prison, which lets few outsiders in and when it does they are monitored and punished should they dare do anything other than sit motionless and listen in quiet and pious reverence. No wonder classical music is gasping for its life and looks like it won’t make it for much longer. Ms. Chung should, by the way, issue an apology to the child, her parents and offer them a free ticket to a concert or a free CD or download. That would be the way to put this right, but I doubt that somebody so entrenched in the dusty, musty, mouldy world of classical music would have that sort of idea.

    • Rich Patina says:

      ” …tis a clear sign that the artist just doesn’t get it and still remains locked in their classical prison, which lets few outsiders in and when it does they are monitored and punished should they dare do anything other than sit motionless and listen in quiet and pious reverence. ”

      What a great comment!!

      • Anne says:

        Silly me, I thought it was called concentration.

        When reading a serious book, I didn’t know I was demonstrating “pious reverence”.

    • Alex Verney-Elliott says:

      The child coughing ‘does not get it’ that the audience are there to hear music and not coughs. The parents of the child are as bad and insensitive as the child for showing no control over the child as they should have taken the child straight out of the hall but were selfish protecting their child’s ‘right’ to make a noise. Why didn’t the parents take the child out straight away as soon as it started coughing? Yet there is such a deep rooted fear and taboo to criticize children today that they know very well they can behave anyway they like which is actually very harmful for it turns them into ugly monsters with fascist egos. But Children must be taught by their parents how to behave in concerts (but having said that, many parents don’t know how to behave at concerts themselves!)

      The Royal Festival Hall audience is largely unmusical, petty-bourgeois and dumbed-down and there to be seen rather than to hear. Often I see patrons taking photos and filming with their mobile phones and laptops when they are asked before the concert not to use mobile-phones or take photographs and this happens very frequently with audience members also whispering loudly to one another when soloists and orchestra are in performance.

      Chung had every right to tell the child off and I wish conductors and soloists would castigate noisy patrons much more often as the Royal Festival Hall audiences have become so slobbish and yobbish in recent years. Chung puts a lot of time and thought into rehearsing the music whilst the child put nothing into coughing. At the RFH I have witnessed both Kurt Masur and Davin Zinman stop the LPO because of adult noise.

      Kurt Masur walked out of the Largo of the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony due to very loud coughing in Avery Fisher Hall: Kurt Masur recalled the day after the concert: ”It was unbearable. This is one of the deepest slow movements of any composer. Its message is so human, so full of pain, so full of beauty, and we tried our best, but with the kind of uncontrolled coughing in the audience, I felt more and more that nobody could concentrate. So I left. I didn’t want to get angry, I just wanted to make people aware that they were disturbing the process of listening.”

    • Prix d'excellence says:

      “No wonder classical music is gasping for its life and looks like it won’t make it for much longer.” Well I’ll be darned, it has managed to survive for several hundred years, and the venues I play obviously have a club of brainwashed people to fill the seats !! Great music has always lasted the tale of time, and that isn’t going to change any time soon. As for KWC apologising !! get a life ! why should she need to do that ?!! When you attend someone’s concert, cough loud enough to be a distraction, when you should be at home getting back your health, and not passing your germs to everyone else, then you’re not worth sympathy, only contempt ! They got what they deserved, and good that someone of KWC’s stature was brave enough to put them in the picture.

  • SVM says:

    The soloist’s conduct was perfectly reasonable. It is *audiences* that need to be reminded that the acoustics of a concert-hall are particularly sensitive to disruptive noises such as coughing.

  • Hilary says:

    I’ve heard so many conflicting accounts od this story that its starting to be like Kurosawa’s famous film Rashomon.
    The Maddocks review speaks at length about this incident but later gives a cursory review of James Dillon’s music at Huddersfield contemporary music festival….a damning indictment of the state of music criticism or (giving FM the benefit of the doubt) the editorial policy.

  • Nick says:

    A trade-off seems to have become an accepted and unwritten rule of concert-going, especially in winter seasons. Patrons will do their best to refrain from coughing until a movement break. At that point, they make up for it – and more – with a blast of coughing ranging from polite genteel ‘ahems’ to full-throated bronchial spasms. In the case of Ms. Chung’s recital, various sources confirm this lasted a full minute following the first movement of the Mozart sonata.

    Think about that for a moment. Sixty seconds is actually a long time; a very long time! A large proportion of a concert hall engaged in coughing also involves the production of a great deal of loud and highly intrusive ‘noise’ – far louder than the sound of a violin and piano. Now think about latecomers. In many concert halls they are able to enter after a movement. Generally they do so guided by an usher, and do so pretty quietly. They do so quietly in order not to disturb the atmosphere generated by the first part of an artist’s performance. Yes, it can be disturbing for some. But far less so than a full sixty seconds of out-and-out coughing.

    Why is it that we are often irritated by latecomers, yet a concert audience can spread germs and a vastly greater amount of noise by loudly coughing without anyone present caring much about it and without anyone considering the disruption this has to the flow of a performance? It’s as though this tradition of not just one but several coughing breaks between each movement has become part and parcel of the ritual. I find this quite ridiculous!

    Some people have to cough as a result of a cold or worse. Yet why is it that these coughers are perfectly happy to let the sound of their coughs blast through a concert/recital environment without making more than a somewhat pathetic attempt to lessen the noise. Throat drops, tissues placed on the knee at the ready, better still an old-fashioned handkerchief, all are far more effective than a hand – usually placed a couple of centimeters or more from the source of this noise.

    As for the mass coughing breaks, this has surely gotten way out of hand. My guess is that 80% and more of any audience do not actually need to cough. They do so merely out of a following-the-herd mentality. And again, instead of trying to muffle their sounds, they appear to feel they have an absolute right to cough as hard and as loud as they wish without any thought for their fellow audience members, to say nothing of the artists.

    It is surely time for audiences to think more about those also trying to enjoy the performance as well as the performers themselves. Cough, but only if you have to. In that event, prepare in advance and muffle the sound so it produces as little disturbance as possible.

    • John says:

      Nick seems to know a lot about the motivations of each individual who coughs during a performance. According to him, several in the audience during this particular performance, actually had their watches out and were timing the period of coughing in order to state that it lasted more than one minute (“various sources confirm…”). And SEVERAL coughing breaks between movements? That’s a new one for me. Nick goes on to tell us that people cough loudly deliberately. I guess he’s singled out and talked to each of those folks. And he even asserts that some people cough just because they want to, not because they have to. (He must have interviewed those people as well.) Nick seems to be telling us he has this all figured out. People who just cough on purpose, not out of any particular need. They, and the other unfortunate coughers who actually have colds, will plunk down a hundred bucks for a seat just so they can go out in public and put on public displays of their talent at expelling germs into a crowd as loudly as possible. Hmm. Doesn’t seem logical to me.

      I’m a veteran concert-goer, and what I have experienced is that coughing happens. One cough will seem to trigger others in a crowd. Does anyone remember Victor Borge’s routine where he started out saying that the piece he was going to perform is one during which most people cough. And then people seem to start coughing all over the hall! People responded to that suggestion just as others at concerts have a sympathetic response when other start coughing. Trust me, when you have a hall with hundreds or thousands of people in it, the odds of someone coughing are very great! And when the concert is in winter, even greater.

      Disturbances of any kind at a concert are annoying, as can be seen from many of the comments here. But if one wants a perfectly controlled experience with absolutely no noise, that person should probably stay at home in their living room and listen to recorded music with an expensive pair of noise-cancelling headphones.

      This seems to be one of the most popular topics at Slipped Disc. For me, though, it’s one I’m going to stop checking in on. Carrying on and on about something that will continue as long as we have live performances seems rather tiresome and annoying as the topic itself.

  • john humphreys says:

    SVM – how do you stop a child coughing? Strangle it?

    • Alexander Hall says:

      Clearly you can’t, and nobody is suggesting one should act on the facetious idea you expressed. But as a responsible parent you will know if your child has a throat condition BEFORE you enter the auditorium and as a responsible parent you will have a handkerchief or lozenges at the ready. That is all we ask: a reduction in decibel levels (and it can be achieved) rather than clinical silence.

  • Alexander Brown says:

    Since it seems that huge numbers of people have bronchial conditions in winter, why don’t those people stay at home instead of spreading their bacteria and viruses all over the place? Why are so many people against Ms. Chung? I have fortunately retired from the stage now, but if I were still active, I would join her! As various correspondents have pointed out, most people don’t need to cough at all – and I for one can’t remember EVER coughing when I was in the audience, EVER!!!!

  • Anne says:

    Wasn’t it the RFH that used to offer advice along the lines of: “During tests in the Hall, a note played forte on the horn measured ?? decibels. A single uncovered cough gave the same reading. A handkerchief placed over the mouth assists in obtaining a pianissimo.”

    Time to reintroduce it. Also applies to children – that’s what parents are for.

  • Miles York says:

    Audience deportment, especially in the States, has become deplorable. Apart from the unnecessary coughing and hacking, there is the ongoing disaster of cell phones, tablets, smart phones being peered into during performances. Beepers sounding is common in Avery Fisher Hall, Carnegie Hall in New York. Some artists, I wager, simply refuse to play for such audiences. Muti likely refused the appointment of conductor of the NY Phil because of the bad manners of the audience. I have yet to hear an orchestra member cough or sneeze during a performance and I’ve been attending concerts of the NY Phil since 1980.

  • StopTheMusic says:

    Today’s audiences DO NOT KNOW how to behave at concerts, period. They see nothing wrong with talking, texting, reading e-mails, taking calls (yes, I’ve witnessed this during Carnegie Hall & Lincoln Center concerts), letting their children wiggle in their chairs, taking pictures, making videos, etc. Artists who can remember the audiences of 40 years ago (who did know how to listen to music) can choose either give up performing altogether, or accept the new reality: Today’s public doesn’t know how to behave at concerts, or how to listen intelligently to music, PERIOD. Lecturing or scolding the public won’t help — it’s TOO LATE!

  • Stephen says:

    “last week’s concert disaster”. Typical Norman exaggeration, of the type found in all his books. Trust him too to take the side of those who don’t respect basic concert rules. As a critic, he probably gets free tickets so doesn’t care about being disturbed.