Muti stops Chicago concert over coughing

Muti stops Chicago concert over coughing


norman lebrecht

June 25, 2018

They don’t call in the Windy City for nothing.

People catch cold.

On Saturday night, music director Riccardo Muti stopped in the middle of a Cherubini piece when the coughing got too bad.

Report here.



  • Vaquero357 says:

    What music lover can’t sympathize? I was at the Opera Theater of St Louis Saturday night: orchestra starts the quiet, quiet introduction to Act III of La Traviata…..>>cough, cough, COUGH<< [first one audience member, then another, and another….] OK, sometimes you just cannot stifle a cough. But in 40 years of concert going, that's happened to me maybe twice – and both I felt bad about detracting from the performance.

    If you're recovering from a cold or just have a chronic cough (lay off the Marlboroughs!!), medicate up BEFORE the music starts.

    • Mike says:

      Are you sure it wasn’t Violetta coughing.

    • Nik says:

      There is something particular about the Traviata Act 3 introduction that ALWAYS provokes a storm of coughs. I don’t know what it is, but it never fails.

      • Vaquero357 says:

        Gospel truth, brother!

        However, the Des Moines Metro Opera took a different turn with Traviata a few years ago: WAY too much simulated blood in Act III. (Trying to create a far too realistic depiction of death from tuberculosis.) I was recovering from a weird flu myself and hadn’t had much to each that day….and had to spend most of the act with my eyes closed so I didn’t pass out.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Once I attended ‘Pli selon pli’ by the Ensemble Intercontemporain when they were on tour in the UK, and how awful! I got the flu just a day before the concert. I had anticipated it so much I did not want to let it pass. Also I found the ticket quite expensive. I sneezed all the way to the hall and people were looking at me in the bus, an old black man even offered me a candy, which I took, in spite of my mother saying never accept candies from blacks, but well I wanted to hear my favorite piece! With quite a fever I found my place and could suppress most of the coughing. But under the ‘dentelle’- I think it’s still the first Pli – I could no longer hold it and could wait till the well-known tutti to ventilate my throat and nose, but somehow that chord came a bit earlier than I thought and in the following pause the noises I made distracted the players and conductor so much that they stopped and asked me to leave. But I didn’t want to so there was a quarrel, the ushers came, I insisted I’m a Boulezbian and eventually they let me attend the rest at the back of the hall, standing. But the fine coordination was gone and I heard all kinds of wrong entires, at least very different entries from what I was used to hear. And what I think were wrong notes, that is the wrong notes I’m not used to. At the end I fainted with fever and had to be brought home by an ambulance but it was all worth it!


    • Sue says:

      I think what’s most annoying is that there’s total silence during a piece, even a soft and quiet one and the very minute the movement ends the coughing starts right through the auditorium. I never understood this.

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      Dear Sally,
      When you get the flu you should avoid a Boulez concert – the guy was very dictatorial and exclusively his sounds were to be heard in those occasions – and go to a concert of John Cage instead – he was very democratic and your coughs would be welcomed – yes, your coughs would enrich the musical experience and the audience, uncertain if you were also a performer, would congratulate you afterwards.

    • Vaquero357 says:

      To this day, there are dozens of people who still remember back to that terrible case of flu they picked up at a Boulez/Ensemble Intercontemporain concert years ago.

    • jaypee says:

      Borstlap, maybe I wasn’t clear before, so I’ll write it again: you’re not clever, you’re not funny and you’re boring.

      Have you thought of this: if, instead of trolling on slipped disc, you’d worked on your music a bit more, maybe you’d be a half-decent composer…

      • John Borstlap says:

        I agree with that! Where would we be without JP?!


      • Saxon Broken says:

        Jaypee writes: “Have you thought of this: if, instead of trolling on slipped disc, you’d worked on your music a bit more, maybe you’d be a half-decent composer…”

        …or maybe not.

  • MacroV says:

    I’m with Muti. Sure, sometimes you just can’t avoid coughing but you have to try. I’m a little surprised this was happening in late June, though. Not exactly flu season.

    • Andrew Powell says:

      On All Saints’ Day last year he stopped a Verdi Requiem I attended over a cough. He is an irritable man nowadays. Basta.

  • Bruce says:

    Physiologically it makes sense: listening to a concert, you sit still and your breathing tends to become slower and shallower. After awhile, the secretions that would normally be cleared by normal breathing and occasional small throat-clearings build up to the point where a cough becomes necessary. (I see it in my hospital work, too: most of the patients I see spend most of their time in bed, and 80-90% of them cough when they first sit up. Not a paroxysmal fit usually, but a cough rather than just an “ahem.”)

    How to control it? Pay a little attention to what’s going on with your body, specifically your throat. Clear your throat frequently, without activating your vocal cords. Take an actual deep breath now and then. It’s doable.

    The article makes it sound like Muti stopped the concert because one person coughed (But Riccardo Muti went above and beyond his normal over-the-shoulder glare and fully brought to a halt a CSO performance Saturday night after someone in the audience coughed.). I wonder if that’s accurate?

    • Anson says:

      Based on my personal experience at CSO concerts that can’t possibly be accurate. It’s the worst bunch of coughers I’ve ever come across. By the time Muti turned his head around after one cough there inevitably would have been five more, so no one would have been able to tell which one “caused” the interruption.

      • Meal says:

        @Anson: “Based on my personal experience at CSO concerts that can’t possibly be accurate. It’s the worst bunch of coughers I’ve ever come across.” So, you have never been in Cologne, Germany. Alfred Brendel even wrote a poem on “The coughers of Cologne” (; you will have to scroll a little bit down for the German text).
        I remember well a concert a couple of years ago with Christian Thielemann and the Sächsische Staatskapelle. After the first movement of Bruckner 5 there was that kind of silence, magic; I never experienced this before or thereafter. And then, after a few bars of the beginning of the 2nd movement cough, COUGH, COUUUGH. Thielemann interrupted and took his handkerchief, signaling the “red one”. The audience appreciated this reaction from Thielemann very much.

    • Musician says:

      Not at all accurate. I was playing in that concert and there was no cough, but a noise from onstage. Muti’s scowls are often misdirected, a cough from the terrace and the main floor gets the evil eye, and so on. This reaction was way off the mark.

      • Ann Silberman says:

        That’s correct – a bass player lost control of his instrument while leaning forward to turn a page and his instrument slipped out from under him. It made a significant noise that an unfortunate concert goer exclaimed over and then another idiot decided to yell out in praise of Muti. Muti also said during his outburst that the musicians were doing “the best they could” implying that they perhaps were not up to the task. It was embarrassing to see him behave that way, considering the huge salary he commands for not that many performances. It ruined the mood of the evening.

  • Daniel says:

    I have an easy solution. Since most of the problem “children” are geriatric, just ban them attending concerts outright. They can pay for their subscriptions for the good of the order, but need not bring their phlegm into the concert hall. Easy peasy

    • Mark J Henriksen says:

      If you bother to follow the stats, no geriatrics = no audience. Maybe Muti needs to suck it up and face reality if he wants an audience. Though the though of missing a few notes of Cherubini certainly has me all aflutter.

      By the way, reread your post. Do you feel that it comes from the workings of a healthy mind? I don’t.

      • JoBe says:

        Muti (born 1941) is rather geriatric, too… Does he go to other people’s concerts?

      • Daniel says:

        Apparently, you didn’t stop to consider that my post was sarcastic. Of course, I’m aware that the audiences are always geriatric. As someone in my 30’s, I’m an outlier when it comes youth in concert halls. That being said, i’ll double down now on the post. Everyone retirement age and older should be considerate and please my wishes by not showing. It would make my concert going experience so much better. Easy Peasy.

        • Edgar says:

          Your sarcasm is not funny but obnoxious. I hope I sit right behind you one day with a big fat cold so I can cough and sneeze all my airborne vectors right into your head, and that the music being performed has a lot of fff in the score, so I have plenty of opportunities.

  • Tian says:

    The article is very misleading. I attended the Thur and Sunday concerts, but missed the Saturday one. Missed all the drama. But I have a good friend attended that one. And according to her, it was not just cough, it was TALKING! The article made it sounds like just someone couldn’t hold their cough, not the case, talking is very different! I would Shhhhh the person if I was there… root for Muti on this one!

    Thursday ‘s concert had some horrible cough too, I was sitting on the left side, there were a few bad cough (when I say bad, it means the cough sounds like the person did not even trying to hold it at all, just let it go at it’s loudest shape) Muti turned slightly and glanced that side, which help quiet them down.
    Sunday afternoon was a splendid performance, until the last minute, during the last part of the piece, pianissimo, someone’s phone rang… I was furious to be honest, and I bet Muti was probably angry.

    I got to meet Muti after the show at the backstage, and doesn’t seems like he was in a good mood. I can’t blame him.

    • Vaquero357 says:

      My experience: the worst people for talking *during* concerts are the elderly. Not breaking bad on our senior citizens, but over the years in many different venues and cities, the offenders I’ve encountered have consistently been folks “old enough to know better.” I don’t get it….

  • Nick2 says:

    I have said it before and make no apology for saying it again. Coughing is either an unconscious habit which many resort to occasionally and especially in between movements, for example. Or it is a result of some form of cold or worse, as John Borstlap described. Both can be annoying and often disturbing to the rest of the audience. The answer to most coughing events is relatively simple. Never try to muffle it by stifling the cough. That usually makes the disturbance worse. SImply place a handkerchief on your knee at the start of a concert. When you feel a cough or a sneeze coming on, cough or sneeze into the handkerchief. The effect for others in the venue will be very considerably minimised. If you have no handkerchief, place two or three paper tissues on your knee. Obviously not in their pack but spread out ready for you to muffle the noise you make.

    At many dozens of concerts I have seen many men create additional disturbance by quickly trying to get a handkerchief from their trouser/jeans pockets or ladies grabbing handbags to find tissues in a noisy wrapper. Why can’t audience members understand that the noise and disturbance they make will almost certainly disturb others, as well as on some occasions the performers. If people just took a moment to think how to minimise the noise they create, events as in Chicago would not take place.

    • Peter Smith says:

      When I first started going to concerts, all Royal Festival Hall programmes contained the following:

      “In a recent test, a note played mezzo forte on the French Horn measured 39dB. An “uncovered” cough gave the same reading. A handkerchief placed over the mouth assists in producing a pianissimo.”

      I never understood why they stopped printing that.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    Once during a recital of Krystian Zimerman, no less, I got bored during some Debussy works I didn’t particularly care for (sorry, I am no Debussy fan). And I really wanted to cough. I knew better and suppressed my urge, which didn’t come back in the remaining program, which I liked.

    This little personal experience made me wonder how strong the connection between boredom and cough really is. In mainstream performances in big auditoriums, the proportion of attendees who go for reasons other than music is arguably higher than in smaller auditoriums and specialized events, such as early music. In the latter types of events I enounter little or no coughing. At Marlboro Music I have attended many events over the years and never remember any coughing. Coincidence? I doubt it.

    • Nigel Goldberg says:

      I subscribe to this view entirely.

      • Mike Schachter says:

        Interesting theory. I wholly go along with the Debussy perspective, I have been to dozens of Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, and the only time I saw people leave while the music was playing was during Pelleas. If I had not been with a group of friends I would have followed. I have heard little Cherubini but not inclined to hear a lot more.

        • Vaquero357 says:

          Well, according to the CSO’s calendar, the Cherubini piece was his “Chant sur la mort de Joseph Haydn”….. I wonder how/where Muti managed to find that?

  • kuma says:

    I was at the concert Sat. night and it was more than a cough. I was on the main floor and the sound came from somewhere in the back and sounded like someone dropped something. Muti said ‘it’s very hard to play the pianissimo, it is impossible! please control yourself!’ He was basically saying have a respect for his fellow musicians. Worse was someone yelled from the balcony ‘It’s not my fault!’ Sheesh. I thought it was so rude. 🙁
    I don’t know what it is with Chicago audience. A few years back, a fist fight broke out in the box. Maestro turned around and scoped the area but did not stop the music.

    • Tianf says:

      Thank you for the first hand info.

      Looks like some people here are jumping to the conclusion without learning the facts.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    . . . and people wonder why I collect CD’s.

  • Dennis says:

    In my experience an audience that finds the concert absorbing tends not to cough

  • Ben G. says:

    People come to concerts in order to cough. It makes them feel special and with the help of peer pressure, they cough even more. Just like musicians and singers, they too jump on the bandwagon and make their own kind of noise!

  • Meal says:

    The legendary German comedian Loriot produced a clip on this topic (on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Berlin Philharmonic), watch! (skip the German intro if you like and start at 0:21).

  • George says:

    I don’t condone loud coughing but at the same time, I don’t pay good money to get scolded by a musician. Muti should stick to conducting. That’s why he’s paid millions a year.

    • Stephen says:

      Rather a contradictory post!

    • John Kelly says:

      I don’t pay good money to hear people coughing and talking during the music. After 50 years of concertgoing I am completely convinced that coughing is 99% about boredom and 1% an occasional “genuine” cough.

      • Petros Linardos says:

        The ratio sounds about right to me. My concert silver jubilee is coming up in three years – I started very young.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Some people wait for the pianissimo passage to break into animal noises, to draw attention.

  • Patrick says:

    Because Italian audiences are so polite and quiet…

  • anon says:

    Don’t blame the coughers, blame building maintenance for keeping the hall too dry, too heated in the winter, too air conditioned in the summer.

    When conductors go backstage between pieces, what do you think they do, they take a drink of water. Musicians have their bottles of water next to their stands.

    • Tian says:

      It’s June now, even Chicago is not cold at all. Let alone the fact that there are bins of free cough candy in the hall.
      And, you can drink your water as much as you want during the intermission, even during the performance there are ways to do it quietly.
      The problem is lots of people feel they are here to be entertained, I bet that is not how Muti feels.

  • mhtetzel says:

    About a couple of years ago I went to a concert at the Musikverein. Daniel Barenboim and Nina Stemme if I remember right. During the concert people were coughing a lot, something very unusual at the Musikverein. After one of the songs, Baremboim turned to the audience, took a handkerchief from his pocket, pressed it against his mouth at the same time looking right, left, centre, up and down to the audience. The concert continued in total silence.

    Also at the Musikverein I sat next to a Japanese couple. Each of them had a folded large handkerchief ready for action.

    If you have a bad cough stay at home. No amount of cough drops will prevent you from coughing. Always take a large handkerchief and use it.

  • Coughingwhenbored says:

    Audiences tend to cough when bored. Perhaps that was the problem with this concert. Call a spade a spade.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Not necessarily. There are people who specially go to a classical music concert when they feel a cough coming-up.

  • Vaquero357 says:

    Some lessons: If you’re sick and have a really bad cough, just stay home. Sure, you miss the concert and lose the cost of a ticket. But over the course of a lifetime of concert-going, how often will that really happen?

    And if you’re really sick, how much will you enjoy the concert anyway?

    P.S. Another problem: folks who start S-L-O-W-L-Y unwrapping a cough drop or hard candy with a noisy, crinkly cellophane wrapper DURING the concert. I appreciate your desire to quell that tickle in your throat, but just unzip the wrapper in one, fast motion and can the slow equivalent of the Chinese water torture!!

  • Hornbill says:

    My most memorable experience of a cough-free concert was when Steve Reich and the London Sinfonietta visited Singapore a couple of years ago. Packed house, 1600 seats, you could hear a pin drop except for the enthusiastic applause at the end of each piece. Average age of audience was probably around 30.

    • Tian says:

      Hate to say it’s but CSO does somehow get the oldest audience I’ve seen. Even compare to Met opera. I’ve see oxygen bottle in CSO concerts time to time, and getting to restroom during intermission is impossible…

  • Thomasina says:

    So, to summarize the stories of people attending the concert, Muti got stuck because someone probably dropped something and made a noise, and someone was talking, and a noise from onstage…? What a night!

  • Stefan says:

    I attended the concert in question. I actually didn’t hear anything unusual from my seat in the fifth row and was surprised when Muti stopped the concert. Sure, there was coughing, but I didn’t notice anything that seemed to warrant his reaction. I did find his little speech to the audience rather condescending and off-putting. I have seen conductors address the problem in a friendly way, and that usually works better. Muti’s angry remarks only created an awkward and uncomfortable atmosphere in the hall. I agree with Musician: Muti’s “scowls are often misdirected.”

  • Robert Holmén says:

    In 25 years of symphony going I’ve not witnessed anything like this.

    I don’t mean the halt in the concert, I mean anything by Cherubini.