A disabled person disturbed Mahler 9, and the row rolls on and on

After Thursday’s performance of Mahler’s 9th symphony by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and conductor Ilan Volkov, the CBSO posted the following apology:

Symphony Hall and the CBSO regret any inconvenience arising from occasional disturbance from an audience member during the concert on Thursday April 25th.

Both Symphony Hall and the CBSO believe that concerts should be accessible to everyone. Our policies are designed to make everyone feel welcome, and we work hard to ensure that the particular needs of any individual are not a barrier to enjoying music at Symphony Hall.

During the concert on April 25th, Symphony Hall staff made frequent discreet interventions with an audience member and their companion to offer alternative seating locations and to discuss the nature and length of the second half of the performance. Alternative options were declined by the audience member’s companion, acknowledging the unpredictable and occasional nature of the disturbance from the individual in question. Symphony Hall staff will only ever forcibly remove someone from the hall as a last resort, and this felt inappropriate in this case.

Symphony Hall and the CBSO would once again like to apologise to any audience member that was disturbed, but also to thank the many audience members who expressed their support for our commitment to access on the evening.

So far, so reasonable. But many in the audience were not satisfied with the action that was taken. Several dozen have posted comments here. Some are highly intemperate. 

If you were the duty manager, what else might you have done?

UPDATE: The Birmingham critic Christopher Morley fears the matter was mishandled. Read here.

UPDATE: You can listen to the broadcast here.  The noise starts at around 2 hours 9 minutes and continues to the end.

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  • We went to see ‘Stan & Olly’ at our local Odeon recently. There was a chap with obvious learning difficulties who had a major seizure during the movie. The staff dealt with the situation in an exemplary manner. The movie was stopped, the management handed out sweets to the other patrons and we were given free passes in lieu. The film was restarted after the chap and his carer had left.

    A difficult situation well dealt with.

    Last year, we went to hear the RSNO play Mozart’s clarinet Concerto in the Usher Hall. In the front row was a woman who had a babe in arms. The baby started squalling during, you’ve guessed it, the slow movement! No one did anything. The conductor ignored it. The leader looked vaguely concerned before getting her head down. The soloist did his best to compete.

    No one in the hall did anything until the movement, now irretrievably spoiled was finished. We wrote to the RSNO to register our displeasure and are still awaiting a reply.

    I wonder how Paavo Berglund would have dealt with that situation since I remember him stopping the SNO to remonstrate with latecomers.

    Odeon = 10/10

    RSNO = 0/10

    • I have been at some concerts in some countries where it is clearly stated on the ticket that children under a certain age are not permitted. Usually it is age 6 but I have seen 5 and 4. I feel sorry for the lady with the baby who obviously wished to hear the concert, but babies should not be permitted to a shared experience like a concert.

    • Certain disabilities present delicate ethical and humanitarian concerns — I have attended a concert in a large hall where the severe breathing issues if a man in a respirator were audible throughout and resembled a fairly loud snorer, yet it became possible to zone it out and focus on the stage.

      But there is NO EXCUSE, EVER, for a “babe in arms” in a concert hall. Disabled people have a condition that goes with them wherever they go. But mothers who will not spring for babysitters are simply self-indulgent, and utterly contemptuous of the feelings of anyone but themselves (a not uncommon worldview of parents of very young children in any circumstance). Ushers and hall managers worldwide should be instructed to refuse them admittance.

      • They behave no less badly in restaurants, cinemas and on aircraft with toddlers or their pets. A sign of our narcissistic, entitled and way-too-affluent times.

        Clue: it IS possible to train toddlers to behave themselves in public. You know, the same way you can get a dog to do what you want and they’re far less intelligent than a human!!

    • Something similar happened during a Seattle Symphony concert. The Beethoven ‘Pastoral.’ During the slow movement as a I remember. The kicker is that the squalling infant wasn’t the child of a patron–it was that of a violinist in the orchestra. Guess she couldn’t find a babysitter.

    • Listen, mister. You can’t stop in the middle of Mahler 9 and hand out sweets to the audience and continue in the middle of the movement. This is not some effing romantic comedy, for Christ’s sake

    • Daniel Barenboim , in his Schubert recitals of Piano Sonatas , had to stop because something was disturbing him.A cell phone?A cry?I don’t remember well what the incident was but surely something rude.

  • I don’t know what side, if any, we are expected to take and therefore comment on this incident.

    The person concerned has as much right as anyone else to attend any performance they or their companion thinks fit. Disruption takes many forms, some more intrusive than others, but the question of denying access to those who may pose some disturbance to others is much more difficult to address.

    I don’t know what response I would have to whatever happened in Symphony Hall but I equally don’t know what the answer is, other than allowing people with difficulties the same right to attend as myself.

    Finally, I think I have more sympathy with the person involved here than those who are more centred on their phones and keeping up with their social media during performances, but then in this case I was not affected by the former but have had numerous run ins with the latter, who have no excuse whatsoever for their unsociable behaviour.

    • Er…actually I don’t think you have a right to seriously disturb other people in the concert. The other people at the concert are people too and have paid for their ticket in the reasonable expectation of hearing a concert under concert conditions. Of course, it depends on the level of disturbance, and the extent to which it can be anticipated.

      Many venues now offer shows for people who are likely to cause a disturbance.

  • Well…it’s something to talk about at the après concert soirée.

    Some of my most memorable concert going experiences have been the ones disturbed by an audience member.

    Not favorably remembered but they do remain in my memory long after the ordinary concerts have passed.

  • I once went to a concert in Honolulu. The orchestra first played an opening fanfare, then a solo piece by Nigel Kennedy on violin.

    In the second half of the concert, which was an all orchestra piece, a lady and man directly in front of me kept talking and arguing out loud (not whispering) throughout the piece. First, I coughed to get their attention: no reaction. Then, I tried to attract their attention: no reaction. Finally, I tapped the man on the shoulder and said to him, “please shut up so we can hear the music; take your argument outside.” The man turned around and it was: Nigel Kennedy. He said nothing to me.

    You’d think someone at that level would know better. Although he never apologized, he and his female friend left.

    I have never bought anything he recorded and if the radio has him playing something, I turn it off. He’s awful.

    • That doesn’t surprise me at all.

      At a Symphony Haal concert a few years back, he started the concert nearly 20 minutes late – no apology. At the end of the first half, rather than taking the applause, he started talking to the audience about Aston Villa! After 5 minutes of this, he stated.

      I suppose you want me to bugger off now so that you can have a drink.

      They say there is a fine line between Genious and Lunacy. Well, I know which end of the line Kennedy is!!!

    • He certainly comports himself like somebody who is awful. Where does that kind of pig ignorance come from if not an excess of hubris? Next time whisper to him, “Josh Bell is far better”!!!!

  • Important to say here that Chris Morley was not present at the concert and that his comments, though well-meant, are based on – at best – incomplete information. The staff present did everything possible to alleviate the situation; which as far as I could see was insoluble without causing infinitely greater disruption to the concert.

    Ultimately this sort of disruption is the (very occasional) price that we pay for living in a tolerant society. I would argue that music is valueless in the absence of that tolerance.

    • I was at the concert and yes, it is a difficult one.

      Of course, the fault does not lie with the gentleman concerned, but with the carer, who could have taken the gentleman out. He refused to do this and, figuratively speaking, stuck two fingers up at the 1200+ audience, saying I don’t care if it spoils your concert or not.

      Surely everyone who attends a concert has a duty and obligation not to disturb other people at the concert.

      One of the conditions printed on the back of all tickets states:-

      ‘We reserve the right to refuse admission or remove audience members’.

      It does not go on to say – unless you are disabled and then you can make as much noise, and upset all the other audience members as you see fit!

      As I said, a difficult situation.

  • Mahler 9 is a difficult one, given its many quiet and delicate sections.

    I am very much in favor of concerts being accessible to any interested listener. If someone who may not be “neurotypical ” – the new acceptable term – is likely to enjoy the show, I’m willing to exercise a little forebearance, though I admit I would still find it a bit annoying to have Mahler 9 marred by outbursts.

    I have less patience for people bringing a young child who can’t really be expected to keep quiet and still, and perhaps least for people who manage to unwrap candies/cough drops in the loudest possible way. And of course a special contempt for people who applaud before the music dies out in any Wagner opera (what’s their excuse?).

    • What about the Musikverein and a Mozart Piano Concerto with a rock concert blaring loud over the road in Ressel Park?

  • In the linked article: “In Symphony Hall there is an easy answer, which should have been firmly made clear from the outset. There is a Radio Room at the back of the stalls, totally sound-proofed from within, but with a clear view and soundscape of what is happening onstage.”

    I’ve never seen anything like this but it seems to me that it would have been a reasonable compromise.

    I was doing an opera outreach presentation of about 45 minutes of La bohème, and one of our stops was a school for people with autism spectrum disorders. We explained that opera can get loud and that we wouldn’t be offended if people needed to hold their ears or leave the room if they felt overstimulated, and the teachers there reiterated that anybody who was uncomfortable could go into an adjoining room and listen from there. One person covered their ears at the top C on “la speranza” but apart from that they were by FAR our most engaged and attentive audience in a week of concerts.

    • Unfortunately, the journalist who made this suggestion (and who was not himself at the concert) was misinformed. The radio room is not a public space, and it doesn’t remotely offer a satisfactory or even realistic experience of the concert – it sounds more like a very quiet radio relay. An assumption has also been made that no alternative options were offered to the unfortunate individual and their carer by the venue staff. I happen to know that they were – and that they were declined.

      The carer may have had excellent reasons for declining to move – I don’t know, and nor does anyone else who is commenting on this episode. However, that being the case, no-one has yet offered a solution short of physically removing a disabled person from the hall against their will. Has anyone given any thought as to how that might have been achieved? How infinitely more disruptive to the concert it would have been? Whether it is even legal to do so? (clearly, it is morally indefensible, but that appears to be a secondary consideration for some commenters). And how many of the people who are pontificating so authoritatively about Thursday’s events would be on here now, self-righteously expressing their disgust and horror at the headline which would surely have made international news: “Classical orchestra assaults disabled audience member”?

      • Agree with everything you say, but slight correction – he said he wasn’t reviewing (Norman Stinchcombe reviewed) – he didn’t say he wasn’t there, and I read it as if written from experience of the event.

        If the writer had paid for a ticket as an audience member, I guess it’s legitimate to comment. However, when doing so with banner headlines under the by-line of what would like to present itself as a well-informed reviewing organisation, you need to be careful with what you state as fact.

        He says he’s been into this room – so have I. There are steps to get into it surely prohibiting wheelchair access – not to mention almost certain issues of emergency egress etc.. A quick check with the venue about its access and suitability should have prevented this misleading opinion being given out.

        He cannot know what conversations took place before and even during the event with the unfortunate member of the audience and carer, and should not presume that all feasible alternative options were not made available – but you cannot require disabled people to accept them. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 has full force in venues such as this one.

        It’s blindingly obvious that both the venue and concert promoter would always want to find the least worst (there isn’t a best) way to deal with incidents like this. It shouldn’t be presumed, as it seems to be in that article, that they aren’t aware of all the options available to them and equally their implications.

        It’s simple to pronounce “solutions” when you’re safe in the knowledge that you don’t have to implement them personally, or be responsible for any issues arising from them.

        Sadly the publicity given to all of this can only discourage people who have to endure lives impacted by terrible difficulties from taking part as much as possible in those normal communal activities which everyone else takes for granted. They are – and should be – fully entitled to do so.

        It’s to the credit of both the CBSO and to Symphony Hall (and many other similar organisations) that they go out of their way to facilitate it as much as possible,

        I’m aware of the irony of posting this on a blog topic that I would prefer didn’t exist in the first place.

        • Thank you for your comments – agree completely. Just one point: I know both Norman and Chris, I was at the concert on Thursday and I can assure you with absolute certainty that Chris was not present.

  • My experience at Royal Festival Hall a few months ago. When a restless young child sitting on the lap of parent, talking and moving at an evening classical music concert, a staff who was sitting near the family did the right thing by asking them to leave. I understand that staff are inside of concert halls to deal this kind of issue.

    Yesterday at Wigmore Hall a very young child who sounds more like a baby started to cry (?) , talked a lot (good acoustic), tried to walk (but could not much at busy popular area, keyboard side in the front stalls) before the first interval. They remained until the end of concert. We were lucky, the young child fell asleep soon after the fist interval.

    It was not the first time to see a young child talking, restlessly moving, falling asleep at Wigmore Hall, but considering the good acoustic and smaller space (compared to other concert halls) we feel 5 year old is too young to attend evening classical concerts.

    • About 15 audience members who were very close to the noisy child/his family and left the area after the first interval are, in my opinion, entitled to a refund.

      They chose that specific area so that they could see the keyboard closely for that beautiful 3 hour long piano recital, but many abandoned their seats they booked. They might have moved other area they would not normally choose, for example, to the right hand side or rear stalls.

  • One answer is to request a refund, which I’ve done several times in the last year with success. Hit them where it hurts.

    • Refund? For what reason? Could erect any number I guess – person sitting next to you is on mobile or smells (or both), you don’t like the interpretation, conductor not wearing a bow tie, hall too hot/cold. The list is endless.

      • I’ve fulfilled my side of the contract – bought the ticket, turned up on time and do not disrupt other people’s pleasure or concentration – so if the venue cannot fulfill its side of the contract or take action to fulfill its obligation, then it’s not unreasonable to ask for a refund. As to the grounds it’s pretty much common sense I would have thought. I recently went to a major art exhibition and there were so many young children running around it was like being in an exceptionally noisy creche. Concentration on the artist’s work was impossible. I asked for and received a refund. Maybe it’s an age thing, but I don’t think I’m being unreasonable.

          • Snide, but water off the proverbial duck’s backside to me. It was actually the Pierre Bonnard retrospective at Tate Modern. Difficult to appreciate his paintings of what happens when nothing is happening, to paraphrase Gabriel Josipovici, when everything is happening around you. Look, there are plenty of ‘relaxed’ concerts or film screenings, even West End matinees for mums and their babies, so Tate Modern could easily set aside time exclusively for adults with very young children, sparing those who want quiet in which to reflect on Bonnard’s paintings, to experience their quality of feeling, from the constant invasive racket of everyday life. Ah well, such is the tyranny of Twitter that even the most selfish behaviour must be excused by those seeking custom. If only the Bonnard exhibition had been as quiet as a Funeral Home!

          • Quite a stupid quip there, Ben.
            We’re all discussing experiences in a concert hall.
            Try to stay focused, there’s a good chap.

      • JH asks about refunds.

        The point is what can be reasonably anticipated. Not liking the interpretation can be reasonably anticipated, as can something like a few coughs from the audience. Hence no liability from the venue.

        Serious disturbances can not be reasonably anticipated if the performance is under concert conditions. The venue would have to demonstrate it took reasonable action to mitigate the disturbance or be liable.

  • I had the privilege to be at last Thursday’s CBSO concert in Symphony Hall.

    The “disturbance” was heard in the intriguing, short, first half of the concert, which contained two short works by two young composers both of whom has been incarcerated in Theresienstadt concentration camp in World War II.

    Mahler’s 9th Symphony, the main work in the concert, made up the second half. From the outset it was clear the vocal interjections were ever more audible. By the time we arrived at the last movement it was clear to everyone in the hall, who knew how the symphony ended, that it was going to be extremely difficult for players and audience alike.

    I’m not a musician, but I know enough to understand that one of the most difficult challenges is to be able to play very quietly, very slowly, which is what Mahler asks a small number of players to do at the very end of this awesome piece. The technical and emotional demands on players here, so exposed, in those closing bars, is enormous.

    Not only did we have Mahler’s mortality laid bare, we also had the frailty of the human condition poignantly added to those fateful closing pages.

    The true hero’s of the evening were the fabulous CBSO musicians, so utterly professional under very trying circumstances. So too was Ilan Volkov’s dignified professionalism and clear guidance, not just to his players but indirectly to the audience as well, a real tour-de-force if ever there was.

    I now understand that staff did try to persuade the carer to make use of the sound studio at the rear of the hall. That offer, apparently, was refused.

    This beggars a huge question going forward. National and Political pronouncements on “accessibility” and “inclusion”
    etc. all come at a price, as we all discovered last Thursday!

    Just imagine the virtual “hurricane” of comment/vitriol
    that would have emanated from a decision to forcibly remove a wheelchair bound disabled individual from the concert hall. The incredible amount of, industry leading, ground breaking work the CBSO has done over the last 20 years on inclusion and outreach work would have been wiped out at a stroke. One can only imagine some of the chilling headlines, tearing into Classical musicians, audiences for classical music and managements.

    “White middle class establishment snobs hate disabled people spoiling their posh nights of pleasure”. Need I go on?

    Indeed, I think the damage to the whole reputation of the serious music sector would have spread far and beyond the CBSO and Birmingham.

    However much this may have “spoilt” a few concert goers experience last Thursday it is my firm opinion that the teams at Symphony Hall and the CBSO called it right and for me the real hero of the night was Ilan Volkov, a true professional. I can think of several big name maestri who would have reacted very badly to all this and made the unfortunate situation a whole lot worse.

    Final comment – they played the Mahler magnificently, but of course the CBSO is a great Mahler band anyway.

    There but for the grace of God go I.

    END OF

    • Wally,

      Thank you for making some excellent points very clearly and honestly.

      I agree that Ilan Volkov and the CBSO were heroic and did a great job in difficult circumstances.

    • This beggars a huge question going forward. National and Political pronouncements on “accessibility” and “inclusion”
      etc. all come at a price, as we all discovered last Thursday!

      You’ve absolutely nailed it here. I was in an Anglican cathedral for Easter Sunday service – orchestra, choir, organ Eucharist. There was a profoundly disabled Down’s Syndrome man 3 rows in front and he made loud grunting noises during the sermon. His carer was able to quieten him down but I wondered why he was put at the very front of the church, right next to the proceedings.

      To the side there was a kids ‘activity area’ which was far more raucous than anything this poor man was doing.

      Parents: perhaps it’s kinder to your children to train and discipline them than to send them to church and let them rip with toys and ‘activities’. Otherwise, when do they become socialized? Perhaps you don’t want them socialized but wouldn’t it be easier to have others love them and want them around rather than detest and avoid them?!!

    • This reads like an over-the-top CBSO promotion piece.

      Are you Wally Francis, CBSO Development Trust? If so, I think it would be better if you had said so.

  • Decades ago, at a performance of “Das Lied von der Erde” at the Casals Festival in San Juan, we sat behind a woman who manifested constant tics and twitches throughout the initial movements and we, quietly, discussed whether she would disturb our appreciation of “Abschied.” Then, as quietly, an attendant rolled a wheelchair to her, helped her into it and turned it to the exit. She said to us as she left, “Enjoy the rest.”

    We did and we were grateful but saddened that she could not.

  • So far, on the website and any others has anyone mentioned that the noises this gentleman made could have been of horror at the sound. Everyone has just presumed that it was from pleasure.

    The first two pieces were relatively quiet and he made little noise through those.

  • Concert programmers should only do works like the “1812 Overture” and “Nessun Dorma’. Classics that are loud enough to cover all the coughing, sneezing, whispering, talking, ringtones, foot shuffling, program dropping, Tourette’s outbursts, etc.

  • People go to a football match to watch: if someone runs on the pitch s/he is removed, regardless of whether that person is a child or disabled or drunk or whatever.

    People go to a concert to listen: same rules should apply.

    Why is one person more important than the rest of the audience?

    • Hear hear!

      Being disabled (or being the carer/companion of a disabled person) may be a mitigation, but it is no excuse for failing to show consideration for the rest of the audience. Ultimately, we must consider the greater good, which means that some people will, sadly, not be able to go to concerts, whether temporarily (e.g.: due to illness) or permanently.

      It is a question of what constitutes an acceptable risk. For society to function, it is sometimes necessary to exclude some people from some activities — for example, certain disabilities are incompatible with holding a driving licence, because the risk of causing a road traffic accident is considered unacceptable. It may be harsh, and it may be unfair, but it is necessary for the greater good (and all is not lost: many orchestras and promoters mount bespoke performances especially for people who, for one reason or another, would constitute an unacceptable risk in the context of a concert).

      I hasten to add that plenty of the disabled people I have encountered at concerts are exemplary in their consideration for others — I once sat next to an elderly man with a pacemaker who was assiduous in checking and changing the batteries (quite a bit of effort, by the look of it) before the start of the concert, in order to eliminate any possibility of his device making the “low battery warning” beep during the music.

      I was not at the Birmingham concert under discussion, but, given the severity and persistence of the disruption as described, it seems like the only good solution would have been to suspend the concert and recommence once the disruption had ceased. This is not a decision to take lightly (and the only person empowered to take such a decision would have been the conductor), since it would almost certainly result in the concert finishing a lot later than anticipated (especially if going back to the beginning of Mahler 9!). However, the fact remains that it is very difficult for an usher or fellow audience-member to stop a disruption if the offender is persistent and uncooperative.

  • In the US most carers are not paid for by government insurance but by the challenged person or his/her family either directly to the carer or to the agency (generally profit making) that hires him/her. It would be in only an extreme health emergency that a carer would remove a challenged person from a concert hall against the person’s wishes. To do otherwise would get the carer fired.

    With the US Americans with Disabilities Act for a concert hall to insist on ejecting a patron with challenges is to risk being sued and the burden of proof would be on the concert hall to show that the challenged person would be making too much of a disturbance.
    Why should the concert hall risk it? It would be much cheaper to refund the money of those patrons who believe that their concert was disturbed.
    That said, concert halls can do what movie theater (and other theaters) are doing more and more. Set aside a section for wheel chairs and have special performances for autistic people where the music may be less stimulating. These sections and special performances can be expanded for others who may make noise. The wheelchair sections are generally at the end of the aisles or the back of the theater. This is better for people with other challenges since they can enter and exit the auditorium more easily, it is closer to the bathroom, and it disturbs fewer people.
    With regard to kids, orchestras such as the NY Philharmonic have special concerts for young and very young people. The music is specially chosen and the orchestra as well as the other patrons expect more noise and activity from the young audience. I believe that it is perfectly appropriate to exclude young children, especially for evening performances. It is unfair to expect a very young child to sit quietly for an hour
    Concerts in outdoor venues likewise should not expect the same standard of quiet in the audience.
    Most audience members want to be considerate of other audience members most of the time. The guiding principle for orchestras should be to do their best to be as inclusive as possible by making special accommodations for at least some of the concerts over the course of the season
    The issue that concerns me is when people with walkers and wheelchairs are excluded from places when it seems that they are creating the wrong ambiance. In the US this sometimes happens in comedy and variety clubs, non classical music venues, bars that provide music and other entertainment and other entertainment venues where the venue wants to give the impression of being for hip young people, similar to the bouncer who will exclude people from a club or discoteque if they are not dressed to be in keeping with what is perceived to be the style appropriate to the club. This has happened to a good friend of mine who is over 70 and uses a walker several times.

    • Please could you avoid generalisations — many/most wheelchair users and many/most autistic people (to take the two categories mentioned by Sharon) are perfectly capable of attending a concert without being disruptive. The issue is “people who pose an unacceptable risk of being disruptive”, and it would be manifestly absurd to categorise all wheelchair users and all autistic people as such /ipso facto/.

      As for the matter of “providing seating areas accessible to wheelchairs”, that is a completely separate issue, surely.

    • In the UK, they would be funded by local government, if required, although in practise most carers are “friends and family”. I take someone in a wheelchair sometimes to a concert. The only seats I can use are at the front. None of the wheelchair users who attend ever cause a disturbance during the concert. Most people with disabilities really do not cause problems.

  • I listened to the Radio 3 broadcast on Friday 3rd May; the audience member’s vocalisations were clearly heard, and were explained by the studio announcer at the end as being the audible reaction of someone deeply moved by the music – or words to that effect. As someone who regularly has to stifle tears or even sobs at particularly moving passages in the concert hall or opera house, I fully understand what the chap was going through, disability or no, and in a way I think it was a fitting tribute, albeit involuntary, to one of the most passionate pieces in the repertoire. I do, however, also sympathise with the rest of the audience who, no doubt, were dealing with their own emotions (perhaps not all of them what Mahler intended…).

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