Should we stop letting water bottles into symphony halls?

Should we stop letting water bottles into symphony halls?


norman lebrecht

May 03, 2018

Here’s what a reader tells us happened on Tuesday night at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, when Sir Simon Rattle conducted the LSO in Mahler’s 9th:

‘During the first movement, an older lady appeared to drop a bottle of water, which made enough noise to be distracting. Annoying, but I’ve seen far worse. This was followed by a much more distracting ‘hush’ by a man on the same row (top circle, third row).

‘All was well until the end of the movement, when the same gentleman tried calling something over to the lady. Not yet satisfied, at the beginning of the second movement, he stood up, squeezed past about ten seats and began to shout at this lady. He told her to ‘take the fucking bottle of water out the hall’ and claimed he’d ‘stop the whole concert if she didn’t go’, all during the music.

‘Although short, this gentleman was rather large, leaned in towards the sitting lady with real aggression, spitting in her face and leaving her visibly upset and shaken. He then tried to call over a steward to remove the lady, but was unsuccessful.

‘The lady appeared close to leaving, but thankfully stayed. Other audience members were as shocked as I was and some made this clear to the man after the concert. It’s unclear why the man was so aggressive or why he thought he had the power to stop the concert’.


  • Joel stein says:

    Plastic water bottles are “crunched” by their users-sometimes when just being held-most people can last the duration of an hour without drinking.

    • Sue says:

      You can see why dehydration is a problem in concert halls; patrons have to sit sometimes for 45 or 50 minutes before having a break!!

      • Edgar says:

        Imagine a conductor turning to the audience in mid-symphony (or, to make the point, in the middle of “Meistersinger” or “Götterdämmerung” Act One), saying: “Sorry, folks. Gotta take a leak, be back in a minute!” I do like the performing artists onstage: minimal fluid intake before the performance so as to not have to endure bladder urge and the odious long wait at the facilities during intermission. After the concert: a light meal with a good, well-chilled wine, and plenty of table water. Or a good beer. Learned this from Philippe Jordan, in an interview he gave to Manuel Brug of Germany’s “Die Welt”, sometime in, I think, 2011. Of course I am aware that things change as one gets older, as I am experiencing myself. Still, the “Philippe Jordan Rule”, as I have coined it, has thus far been very successful in its application.

        • Christopher Clift says:

          Edgar, The issue here is not that of an older lady inadvertently (I imagine) dropping a bottle of water during the performance at Symphony Hall.
          Where we should all be concentrating our ire is on the ‘prat’ who not only gave the lady the sharp end of his tongue at the time, but continued into the break between movements, AND into the actual second movement too.

        • Sue says:

          Well roared, lion. Couldn’t agree more!!

          • Me! says:

            It sounds like she was continuing to fuss with the bottle and make noise which drove him crazy/breaking point- she should have been ejected and all told no snacks, wrappers, noise making bottles

      • Una says:

        Amazing how singers, both soloists and choir, of a Verdi Requiem or a singing -Mahler or a Beethoven Ninth when required as a soloist at times to sit through the whole thing, that members of the audience can’t stop siping water every five minutes. They managed before these anti-social plastic bottles, and particularly when people decide to bring in fizzy water. Opera North bans ant drinking during their performances.

  • Will Duffay says:

    I wouldn’t ban water bottles: I’d ban nasty aggressive people who need to calm down. Noise during concerts is hugely distracting but there’s really no need for that sort of thuggish behaviour.

    • Una says:

      Well it was all over the top but like mobile phones he probably had had a spate of it all and just lost it. Put the water in your bag would be a start!

    • Thomasina says:

      Agree with you and C.Clift. l think that such aggressiveness is unacceptable for whatever reason. He upseted the other audiences beyond the noise of plastic bottle, I wonder what made him so angry. Perhaps she may have been making the various noise before that or he drank too much before the concert…

      • Sue says:

        Or maybe the person in question had just had enough!!! Like my neighbour over the road, on 1 acre, whose gardener is out twice a week until 9pm with noisy edgers and gardening equipment (the noise level of a chainsaw) – complete with light on his helmet so he can see in the pitch dark. There’s a breaking point and I totally get that.

      • Una says:

        Perhaps he had six of them out of six concerts, and then mobile phones to go with it.

  • John Hunter says:

    I was at that concert sitting in the stalls. Was unaware of this incident and certainly never heard any shouting. However, in the last 5 minutes of the symphony, during the quietest imaginable playing, a couple in the middle of the stalls got up and left the Hall disturbing everyone in the process and shattering the atmosphere. One hopes there was a good reason for this. The lady and gentleman in the seats in front of me who slept virtually the whole way through didn’t help either. Generally there can be no reason to bring bottled water into the concert hall and the practice should be stopped.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Sometimes people take their wrapped lunch into a performance and wait with eating till the adagio unfolds. Mostly this happens at outdoor concerts but it also happens that people forget the difference with indoors. I once sat next to an autistic lady who used the last movement of Mahler IV to rumble in her lady’s bag to find something that she could unwrap with the loudest possible volume, which happened to be a paper bag hiding a big tuna sandwich which began leaking around. When an alarmed usher began removing her from her seat, she loudly protested which stopped the performance and drew all attention from the auditorium, Mahler was forgotten and all eyes attentively followed the wrestling party that ensued. After the loud screams from the foyer subsided, the soprano and the orchestra picked-up the music again, but the continuity was gone and the audience remained restless. Such things also happen during loud movements but then nobody notices.

    “I love attending Wagner concerts, you can converse with your neighbour without being overheard” (Oscar Wilde)

    • Sue says:

      I suggest Mogadon or Valium is dispensed with every ticket from now on. Clearly there is road rage – now there is also ‘concert rage’.

      • Sharon says:

        If Valium is dispensed (which in the US it cannot be; it is a narcotic) we would have to worry about more snoring than we already have!

        • Sue says:

          “Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen; this evenings broadcast comes from the incontinent of Europe where we will be hearing Handel’s “Water Music”, Debussy’s “La Mer” and a new work commissioned especially for the orchestra, “The Thirst Man”, by I.P. Daily.”

          Something like that.

    • John Kelly says:

      Saw a guy eat a big sandwich in the dress circle at Carnegie Hall during the slow movement of the Eroica once. He was quiet about it but it was very disconcerting. In NY you see pretty much everything………….

    • Petros Linardos says:

      I once attended a performance of the Flying Dutchman while fighting a cold. At some point, I badly needed to blow my nose. I waited for the next big orchestral climax, knowing it wasn’t far off. It worked! Nobody noticed.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Wagner knew that the wind machine in that work would make audiences ill, hence the many tuttis to compensate for the inconvenience.

  • Adrienne says:

    Nobody comes out of this well.

    Why can’t people manage without food and water for an hour or two?

    • Robin Smith says:

      Water is often an indication the person has a throat infection. Combined with a handkercief it is a dead giveaway. Bad news when you are sat in front of them – all those germs.

      • Una says:

        No! It’s not a throat infection. It has become a fashion accessory!!!.

        • Christopher Clift says:

          But Una, we don’t KNOW whether the lady had some affliction which required her to have a supply of water handy. What we DO know is that some guy took it upon himself to act as judge, jury and executioner, both at the time, after the movement had ended and while the next movement was in full flow.

          Many on this blog are quick to generalise without knowing ALL the facts

    • Jon H says:

      Agreed. In the best classical music, there’s a lot to focus on – and if you are thinking about taking a sip of water, or doing whatever other than listening – you’re going to miss something.
      Some people just have a problem sitting still/being quiet for that long – but if they could treat it more like meditating, shutting their eyes and focusing on the sound, it’ll be even more rewarding.

      • Robin Smith says:

        Sir Simon was taking a sip of water at the end of at least one of the movements of his Mahler 9 performance at the Barbican Hall last week. Orchestral musicians often have a bottle of water by their seat and Sir Antonio often has a very large bottle of water to refresh himself from at Covent Garden at convenient points. I’ve certainly witnessed members of the audience taking a sip during a performance to suppress a cough.

        • Jon H says:

          What the musicians do is different, they’ve practiced, rehearsed, they know what they’re going to do – but as the audience, we might know the music but we don’t know how they’ll perform it – so the performance is our one and only chance to hear their collective work.
          The problem is those noises are one foot away from the next person, who is trying to hear an orchestra 80+ feet away, and despite the differences in loudness, the sound that’s closer has the advantage.
          Maybe it wouldn’t be as bad if every concert didn’t have to be completely sold out and the audience could spread out more.

        • John Borstlap says:

          There is nothing wrong with sipping a bit of water from a plastic bottle if done silently which is not difficult at all.

          Sometimes conductors doing long stretches, like a Wagner opera, are connected with a long tube to keep internal humidity in balance especially if the music provokes much sweating. In the opera pit nobody notices.

          • Edgar says:

            I observed Barenboim conducting Tristan a few years ago (the coductor’s Met debut, no less), sipping from a water bottle during Act Three while the night’s wounded Tristan, Peter Seiffert, was sweating it out in delirium on the stage. I thought to myself: how dare he do that in front of the verschmachtende Heldentenor, for the poor singer and all the audience in house to see!

          • Una says:

            No sign of Barenboim sipping water at the Ring at the Proms in London that time with it 38C outside.and pushing 48C inside the hall with hardly any aur conditioning. There was hardly a noise in tgenpkace of 5,000, and all those Prommers standing for hours and listening attentively.

      • Jon H says:

        And if you really want to be there, you will make the preparations so that you don’t need to be distracted. Some people are just background listeners, so they get bored unless they’re doing something. But, if the brain is focused on where the water bottle is, it’s not focused on the particular sound or phrasing an instrument is making.
        If the difference between a good player and a better player (who requires complete attention) is lost in the distractions of the audience – why have the better player?

  • Olassus says:

    Such an ugly building.

  • Sue says:

    Some people remain toddlers who sit in their high-chairs and bang it until they get what they want. Then they grow to the size of adults, but really they’re still in their high-chairs. Only this time the chairs are in the concert hall and the water bottles are their dummies.

    • Alexander Hall says:

      I’m quite surprised that individual ashtrays and chamber-pots and/or commodes aren’t now provided in concert-halls. It’s quite intolerable that smokers should have to curb those all-important urges to consume nicotine and allowance must also be made for weak bladders and irritant bowels. After all, if patrons have paid good money for their seats, the thought of having to sit through the 105 minutes that Mahler 3 takes and stifle all these body functions must be horrendous.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Indeed. There have been plans to replace one row of the regular seats in the Philharmonie in Paris by high-chairs, to accomodate potential trouble makers.

    • Hilary says:

      The toddler – as described by the audience member- was the guy doing the reprimanding.

  • Bruce says:

    I was once at a concert of Bach cello suites, seated down the row from a lady who spent the ENTIRE FIRST SUITE (all 6 movements) unwrapping candies. She would self-consciously stop the crinkle-crackle noises during the pauses between movements and glance around with an apologetic smile, then resume at the beginning of the next movement.

    • John Borstlap says:

      A real Bach lover. Probably she had read something about Historically Informed Practice (HIP) where descriptions of 18C audiences appeared to give license to HIP audience behavior.

  • James says:

    I almost always take a bottle of water into a concert. Some concert halls don’t have good air-conditioning so one can drink to cool down. But mostly it’s so that if I get a tickly cough (often caused by aggressive air-conditioning or cooling systems) I can easily deal with it, without having to distract everyone by pushing my way along an aisle and leaving the hall. Crunching water bottles or other noisy behaviour is not acceptable, but silent use of water bottles is very wise i.m.o.
    Oh, and that man should be banned from Symphony Hall, from the sounds of it.

  • The View from America says:

    What’s also real fun is having an audience member so into the music that they’re conducting it from their seat. Usually it’s tolerable, but recently I was “blessed” with having this imagery directly in my line of sight to the stage. So nice.

    • Stickles says:

      One of the reasons why my subscription seats are the very last row of the concert hall, where my conducting with a miniscule beat can remain largely invisible. However one evening at a performance of A German Requiem where I had an upgraded seat, not only was my beat found by a couple a few rows back, they even approached me after the concert and said how much they enjoyed my conducting (vs van Sweden) and found it illuminating. Not sure if they were being facetious, I now always bring a straight jacket when I am giving tickets in fancy seats.

  • Robert Holmén says:

    Ban them.

    The water bottle is more fashion accessory than biological necessity, rather like lycra exercise pants or sweatbands.

    The water bottle is always prominently brandished on the conference table at meetings then picked up again for an excursion as brief as a walk across the room to toss some paper in the waste basket, as if they might suddenly need to top themselves off on the way.

    A college classmate of mine teaches high school civics. On the first day someone always stops the class to say they must be excused to get a drink of water. He tells them, “the human body can survive three days without water.”

    No one needs water after that.

    • Alexander Hall says:

      Well said. The incontinent outflow of all these individual urges, accompanied by declarations that human rights would otherwise be infringed, must be banned on Health & Safety grounds alone.

  • Christopher Clift says:

    It would be good if, rather than condemn the lady without having been at the concert, posters consider what may have made her resort to the bottle in the first place.
    Did she have a medical condition requiring frequent drinks of water, did she have a ‘tickly cough’ (James does sometimes).?
    Whatever, I would hazard a guess that she didn’t drop the bottle intentionally, and was probably mortified enough without the self-appointed guardian of the peace needing to remonstrate with her so overtly not just in the break between movements, but continuing to harangue her DURING the second movement.
    If my memory serves me correctly, Symphony Hall has notices which remind patrons that water (in suitable containers) is the only drink allowed into the Hall during performances.

    • Robert Holmén says:

      No one drops their water bottle… intentionally.

      But with 1000+ people in the hall it is almost guaranteed that a water bottle IS going to get dropped. It’s like if you let people smoke in the hall, someone IS going to put a burn hole in the seat upholstery, even though they didn’t intend to.

      Both easily preventable by not accommodating the unnecessary affectation in the first place.

      There is no “medical condition” that requires one to take “frequent drinks of water”… at least, not one compatible with leaving the ICU to go to a symphony concert.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Why are it mostly ladies who disrupt concerts with unwelcome extra sounds? Is it the result of feminist urge to assert female presence? Is it nervousness in the presence of a male musical work? Is it insecurity on the thought of patriarchal suppression by Beethoven? Or is it a perversion of #metoo extending to classical music listening?

    I once asked Sally about it and she claimed it is because women want to hear more Olga Neuwirth:

    • Christopher Clift says:

      John B, I hope your comment re ladies causing most disruption was written with ‘tongue in cheek’.
      I suggest you do not generalise so frequently in your posts.

  • SVM says:

    Usually, I would be in favour of chastising fellow audience-members for noisy/distracting actions during the performance. However, where the chastisement is even noisier and/or more distracting during the performance, it goes too far. The right to suspend a performance due to intolerable noise/distraction vests solely in the performer(s) (and maybe the house management).

    Personally, I do not take a bottle into the auditorium as an audience-member (if I have my bag with me, there is usually a Thermos-flask in one of the side-pockets, but I would not open it during a performance). As Jon H has observed, the propinquity renders even small noises intolerable. Unless the bottle has its cap off already (a situation which risks spillage), it is almost impossible to drink the water without generating some noise which would irritate at least the dozen or so nearest people. Obviously, for a musician on stage, the situation is different, since he/she needs to be adequately hydrated, and the potential for irritating other musicians on stage may well be the lesser of two evils.

  • bratschegirl says:

    The companies manufacturing the ubiquitous water-in-plastic-bottles have attempted to green up their business by specifying thinner bottles containing less plastic, which is better for the environment, but has the unfortunate unintended consequence of making it extra-mobile and therefore far more likely to make noise than the old, environmentally less desirable but more rigid bottles. It’s nearly impossible to hold one of the new type and move it at all without huge amounts of noise; unscrewing the cap alone is now audible for great distances.

    I sympathise greatly with those afflicted by the tickly cough. Where I live and perform and attend concerts, one of the cough drop companies was a sponsor of the area’s major orchestra for a while, and there were bowls of cough drops – wrapped in nice quiet wax paper, not cellophane – at each entrance to the hall. Sadly, that’s gone by the wayside.

  • Anon says:

    The man was probably annoyed at not having passed a recent LSO audition, and took it out on the lady!

  • BenC says:

    To be honest, I think people drinking in the interval seems more of a problem than water bottles. Not scientific but it seems to be that audiences seem more disruptive after the interval (and a quick G&T or two) – or at least chatty.

    I suspect there are very few people who NEED water but it’s hard to tell the apart from the poseurs.

    And don’t start me on the snackers…

  • John says:

    As the mediocre take over fully, concert seats will come with inflight, I mean, inconcert entertainment.

  • Alvaro says:

    Perhaps the most british Title for an article all year. Good going!

  • Rgiarola says:

    If the lady dropped her cellphone, it would cause much less noyse, but few people would be on her side.

  • Christopher Clift says:

    I wonder what is the viewpoint of the SH management on this matter. Perhaps Mr NL could canvass them for their ‘take’ on it. I notice one poster (from the stalls) noticed little if any commotion.