Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Noises Off

October 31, 2006

All is calm. All is quiet.
Like any space specifically designed for the performance of music, the Walt Disney Concert Hall here in LA has it quirks. Much has been made of the hall's superlative acoustics, but as has been pointed out many times this comes with a price. Everything in the hall is amplified equally - not only performers, but candy wrappers, coughers, and rattling programs as well. Every now and then the building picks a fight with a performer or an audience on its own terms. While the battle is often over amplification, this is not always the case. Sunday was one of those nights, and the hall nearly won.

The occasion was a solo piano recital by András Schiff. He played an all Mozart program of piano sonatas and other smaller pieces, and generally played them beautifully with great intensity. However, he was not alone. Approximately 30 minutes or so into the performance the cacophony of the usual rustling was added to when an elderly gentleman accidentally knocked over his cane sending it careening down a flight of wooden stairs. Minutes later, a woman in the front row in a side section, directly in Mr. Schiff's line of vision clacked her way up a flight of stairs in heels in an effort to escape due to a coughing fit she had developed. At this point, Schiff suddenly stopped playing in the middle of the Adagio in B Minor K 450 and walked off the stage shaking his head. Minutes later the president of the LA Philharmonic, Deborah Borda, came out and after a rather upbeat admonishment to the audience to help keep it down, Mr. Schiff returned. After striking the first note, a cell phone went off. The audience groaned, but Mr. Schiff continued with the program.

I have mixed feelings about this behavior overall. There were audience members who booed when he returned and several people left while he was away. I certainly sympathize with the frustrations over cell phones and poor audience behavior that seems rampant these days. Concentrating in this environment is nearly impossible. However, at the same time, outside of the cell phone, none of the noise making that occurred on Sunday was really avoidable and isn't performing under stress and distractions without flinching part of the job of performing to begin with?

Of course no place is free of these issues regardless of the quality of the acoustics. I've seen this happen before in 2004 in a solo recital of Bach's solo violin sonatas and partitas given by Christian Tetzlaff. I also witnessed a similar event this year in Berlin when Simon Rattle chastised the audience for coughing too much at the Philharmonie during a concert performance of Pelléas et Mélisande.

In the LA Times, Mark Swed writes that he felt the disruption broke an overly studied and mannered air and actually improved Schiff's playing. I'm not so sure. I myself didn't make it through the program because after all the dramatics, I found I couldn't concentrate either. All I could hear and think about was the crackling of programs.

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