Direct action: Music critic snatches ringing phone in mid-concerto

Direct action: Music critic snatches ringing phone in mid-concerto


norman lebrecht

June 04, 2015

A phone went off in Vienna’s Musikvereinsaal during the quiet opening passage of the first Shostakovich violin concerto.

No-one moved, least of all its owner.

So the Philadelphia critic David Patrick Stearns (he was there with his home orchestra) reached over and confiscated the ringing thing.

Could he have been arrested for it?

Here‘s what happened.

concert phones


  • Petros LInardos says:

    Whether Sterns could or should have been arrested is debatable, but the owner definitely deserved to pay a price for interfering with the event.

  • william osborne says:

    Forgive my cynicism, but the high-handed facades created by classical music and many of its journalists never cease to amaze me. Here’s a man willing to grab a cell phone out of a woman’s hand, but who can never spare a dissenting word about the ironic contexts of classical music in Philadelphia. I hope all those comfy, blinkered Main Liners feel real proud of the PO in the Musikverein.

    His heroic action, of course, was to protect the Philadelphia Orchestra’s glories in Vienna. How could he hold himself back? It follows in the dedicated vein of blinkered, civic boosterism that imbues his articles. And of course, to praise those glories with impartial reporting is exactly why he was brought along to Vienna in the first place…

    Of course, Philly doesn’t need any such help — that city which ranks 168th in the world for opera performance per year, the “City of Brotherly Love” that has 180,000 people living in deep poverty, including 60,000 children who face daily problems with hunger. What an outrage that such a rare opportunity for Philly to shine was soiled by a cell phone. It’s so nice to have someone like Sterns standing for decency and truth — and even writing a report about his own “American” courage, as he himself puts it.

    • Anon says:

      William, I don’t really follow what your point is here.
      Are you saying the Philadelphia is a cultural wasteland because it doesn’t have enough opera? And therefore that Philly should spend more money on opera? I can’t quite reconcile a disdain for “high-handed facades” with an apparent similar disgruntlement at the lack of opera, an art-form that only the tiniest minority are interested in, however great it might be. Not the idea that somewhere is a cultural wasteland because there’s not enough opera! I think you can find plenty of highly cultured and cultural European cities which have little to no opera.

      Or are you saying that Philly is a human wasteland because of the level of poverty, and therefore that they shouldn’t even bother with an orchestra or any cultural baubles because there are more important things to spend dollars on?

      • william osborne says:

        Thank you for your thoughtful post. Yes, my post isn’t clear. I am suggesting that classical music in America needs to situate itself more closely in its social environment. I used to think that was impossible, that as an art form it was too rarified, but then El Sistema showed how it can be done.

        It is very rare for European cities not to have significant opera seasons. There are no European cities with the size and wealthy of Philly that don’t have a major house with 150 to 300 performances per year. (Philly has the 9th largest metro GDP in the world.)

        One of the things that most angers me is the silence of our music journalists about these issues. They could play a central role in raising consciousness, but they remain dutifully silent about the problems with our funding system, the cultural poverty it creates, and the extremely difficult circumstances it creates for our excellently trained musicians. And worse, they sometimes even write propaganda. A good example is Mark Swed’s recent article in the LA Times which tries to sanitize Dudamel’s close association with the government that funds El Sistema. Dudamel faces so much intimidation in the States that he can’t effectively promote the system.

        I’m especially sensitive concerning these topics in Philadelphia because in the mid 70s I used to be a substitute teacher in its public schools. I had experiences that changed my life forever. I had a student who was an eighth grade, pregnant, heroin addict. I had a sixth grade student who was brutally beaten by a gang and then had her head shaved. All the middle schools had metal detectors at the doors to disarm the students. My first day at work was for a teacher that had been beaten so badly by his students that he was in the hospital. That school had two fully armed policemen whose sole beat was the halls of the school. Many schools had hot line telephones in every class room for the protection of the teachers. They would connect to a staff of strongmen called “Teaching Assistants” whose job was to come running the minute the hotline telephones in the class rooms were picked up.

        The rates for deep poverty in Philly today show how little has changed in the last 40 years. These massive ghettos create an almost contiguous urban area that extends all the way from Washington to Boston and contains levels of human degradation found only in Third World Countries.

        After these experiences, I could no longer believe in an art form that was not closely connected to its social environment. I turned to writing small, practical, chamber music theater works to address social issues and that is how I have spent the rest of my life.

        • Olassus says:

          Most depressing!

          On the Mark Swed point, my guess is that there is no alternative for the salaried journalists, if they want to keep their jobs.

          • william osborne says:

            Sadly true. The limits of their social consciousness seem to be grabbing cell phones from old ladies, except when dutifully churning out perfunctory denunciations about the political leanings of Dudamel, Lisitsa, Gergiev & Co. How can we inspire journalists to look more deeply into the American classical music world and the society in which it exists? How can we create an atmosphere where they are *allowed* to speak about what they see?

        • Greg Hlatky says:

          I am suggesting that classical music in America needs to situate itself more closely in its social environment.

          As applied to Philadelphia? Shall there be symphonies about the stupendous amount of corruption in its political class, such that “indicted” and “councilman” are never far apart? Oratorios on its rapacious “public service” unions? String quartets on its lavishly funded, miserably performing schools? Sonatas about the astronomical illegitimacy rates? Lieder keening about the police acting as tax farmers by harassing its poorer residents? Variations on the “progressive” policies that have destroyed African-American families and given the city a generation and more of near-feral youths? Overtures on the gentry Left and grievance hustlers getting together to drive businesses from the city?

          • william osborne says:

            Better schools with better music programs would be a start, as would an arts funding system that allowed classical music in the city to begin the process of reaching a wider demographic. It would also be beneficial to create a level of culture that would offer the students of the city’s many excellent music schools chances of employ more along international norms. An opera house and company for the city along the norms of the international community would also be beneficial.

          • Peter says:

            If you care about music education in Philadelphia, please support the All-City Orchestra, composed of Philadelphia public school students, many of them low-income students of color. For the past 10 years, its music director has been Don Liuzzi, the principal timpanist of the Philadelphia Orchestra. The incoming music director is Joseph Conyers, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s associate principal bass. Here is an article about their 2015 concert in Verizon Hall:

            The All-City Orchestra is about to embark on a tour of Italy, its first tour ever (let alone its first international tour). Most of the players have never been abroad and many have hardly left Philadelphia. Here is info on the tour and about how you can contribute:

  • T-ARAFANBOY says:

    well, still good that some can differentiate noise from an electronic device to Shostakovoch’s first violin concerto… LOL

  • Theodore McGuiver says:

    Good for him.

  • SC says:

    I went to tap a noisy neighbour with my newspaper as encouragement for her to shut up during Lied Von Der Erde on Monday. Dear Wife stopped me as, she told me later, this would have been “assault”.

    Perhaps a lawyer could comment re “confiscation” (no intent to steal – he was presumably going to give the phone back later – so surely no mens rea so no crime?), my “attempted assault” and other acts of classical-on-classical violence.

  • Fred Plotkin says:

    I did that fifteen years ago in New York’s Avery Fisher Hall. This was a time when not everyone had a mobile phone. While the New York Philharmonic under Kurt Masur was performing Brahms’s Second Symphony, a man in my row took out his phone and, after pushing a couple of buttons, began to speak in a loud voice. The difference was that he PLACED the call and initiated the conversation. Kurt Masur heard this and, while conducting, turned to his left and began to glower at the caller. I stood up and moved down the row and grabbed the phone from the man, who seemed completely shocked that someone would do such a thing. I moved back to my seat (orchestra playing all the while) and the symphony progressed. When it concluded, a couple of elderly ladies started to club this man with their handbags. I interceded, gave the phone back to the man and explained that under no circumstances do we place phone calls during concerts in New York. He lamely protested that they do in his state (whose I identity I will not reveal out of respect to the millions of excellent music lovers who attend opera and symphony in many venues). But there were many witnesses to this and the encounter was written about in the New York Times. Not an “American thing”, just one that any music lover would do.

    • T-ARAFANBOY says:

      Haha, great story! Too bad there were no iphones back then to have captured the elederly ladies’ handbag clubbing – that video would have gone viral! 😉

  • Simon S. says:

    Well done!

  • CDH says:

    Gabriela Montero gets lots of airtime here. I think this Swed article ought to be available to present the story in a wider context:

  • Sasha Valeri Millwood says:

    The terms and conditions of a concert venue would include something to the effect that the use of mobile telephones and cameras is prohibited, and that they must be switched off. Given the practical difficulty of calling a steward to enforce the rules, it is entirely reasonable for audience-members to take direct action. I have done so myself on a few occasions — only last night, I knocked a camera out of the hand of an audience-member in front of me, in order to stop him from completing his conspicuous attempt to take a picture during the performance.

    Mobile telephones and cameras are to classical music what guns are to civilized people: a noisy, disruptive, and destructive weapon. If you saw somebody about to shoot a dear friend of yours and you could stop it happening by seizing their weapon, would you not do so?