The Virtues of Silence

05/25/2011 12:20 pm ET
  • Ivan Katz Lawyer, Graduate, Georgetown Law School

It is not clear to me who ought to be getting the awards and plaudits: The pianist Angela Hewitt for her performances of Johann Sebastian Bach's "The Well Tempered Clavier," or her audiences. Since a performance of "The Well Tempered Clavier" runs about four hours, the challenges are obvious.

Brevity is not the touchstone here, as may be shown by the title, loosely translated: "The Well Tempered Clavier, or preludes and fugues in all tones and semitones, in the major as well as the minor modes, for the benefit and use of musical youth desirous of knowledge as well as those who are already advanced in this study. For their especial diversion, composed and prepared by Johann Sebastian Bach, currently ducal chapelmaster in Anhalt Cöthen and director of chamber music, in the year 1722."

In an article found on the Guardian Unlimited web site and dated January 11, 2008, Ms. Hewitt wrote with respect to performance: "With Bach, the concentration has to be unfailing. That is a feat in itself, as it is impossible not to have extraneous thoughts assault your brain (during a concert in Brescia, the strap on my high-heeled shoe broke during the third prelude-and-fugue set, and I had the next hour before intermission to wonder what I would do when I got up from the piano). The slightest cough from the audience at the wrong moment is enough to derail you."

Audience members cannot do very much about shoe straps snapping (one wonders what in the devil she is doing performing in high heels in the first place) but it can do a good deal about the sort of noise that derails. And, unfortunately, we have never been particularly good at it. Here in New England, the concert season often coincides with cough-and-cold season, resulting in concert halls that sound like tuberculosis wards. Performers who are unable to deal with it ought to consider the Glenn Gould paradigm and retreat to the recording studio.

The distractions that plague concert audiences are in large measure preventable. It ought not take a Rhodes Scholar to realize that the one and only appropriate setting for a cell phone in a concert hall is in the "off position." I recall one concert in which the pianist had sat down to play and at that moment a cell phone rang. "Answer it and tell them I'm not here" he remarked. Although this disarmed the situation as the audience dissolved in laughter and applause, I sort of wish that he had, instead, simply yelled out "Usher! Seize him!"

Here in New Haven, my subscription tickets for the Horowitz Piano Series at Sprague Hall at Yale are located immediately behind a gentleman I refer to as "The Human Metronome." This fellow has a disconcerting habit of swaying to the music, bobbing his head to and fro, and generally being a damned nuisance. Sudden shifts in tempo cause him to nearly rocket out of his chair, and the temptation to sneak into the concert hall the day of a performance and attach bonds and straps to his chair has, to date, been resistable. Some folks merely need a ticket; this guy needs a ticket and 10 mg. of Valium. But then I'd probably complain about his snoring.

And speaking of snoring, there was a dear, sweet woman who used to claim that going to a concert was like going to bed. "It's dark, it's I nod off." Although it is not my custom to have a full symphony orchestra in my bedroom, I do see her point. No one can complain when a member of the audience succumbs to the lures of Somnus, so long as it is done noiselessly. With 30 minutes to do some quick research, I could probably list two dozen concerts I've attended in recent years in which sleep was a simple act of self-defense. Many years ago the New Haven Symphony Orchestra gave a concert featuring the Fourth Symphony of Gustav Mahler, and a kid (he couldn't have been more than eleven) sitting up front began to snore very, very loudly. I was sitting up in the balcony and it was impossible to miss. Detracted from the music? Of course. A perfectly reasonable response to that particular performance? Likewise of course.

There is no real excuse for holding a conversation with one's neighbor during a performance, and the same applies to jingling keys or change. Just when the plague of individually wrapped candy abated, we have been cursed with small candies in metal boxes which, when removed from the pocket, clang and jangle like Marley's ghost.

No one can ask a thousand people to refrain from coughing for an extended period of time. We can -- and do -- ask that they do their utmost to hold the coughs until an appropriate break in the music, but the human body being what it is, there are times that audience members simply must cough, or choke, and coughing is far less disruptive. Every time that I sit in a concert hall and find myself utterly engrossed in the music and the spell is broken by someone hacking up a lung two rows back, I curse under my breath but then quickly realize that paramedics coming in to revive the patron would be far more disruptive.

Architects and acousticians have labored long and hard to insure that performance spaces are designed to keep noise out. And then audiences walk in and ruin everything. Concert presenters can do virtually nothing to stop people from coughing, but they can and should crack down on cell phones. It drives audiences nuts, and I'd hate to think of what it might do to poor Ms. Hewitt.