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Cell Phones in the Concert Hall

During a recent trip abroad, I attended a New Year’s Eve concert at London’s historic Wigmore Hall. I was especially looking forward to it since it was the location of London debuts of several of my relatives who had always raved about the acoustics and ambiance of this beautiful 550-seat venue. During intermission, I took out my phone and started to snap a few photos of the hall to remind myself of some of its features and to share with family, only to be told, rather emphatically, that photographing was not allowed. I said I understood that taking photos was off limits during a performance, but this was intermission. When I was told that it was still not allowed, I asked why and was told, simply, that that was the rule. I pressed the point, saying I had taken photos of halls throughout the world and this was this first time I had encountered such policy. At this point, the attendant, clearly angered, asked to see my ticket and by this time, my evening spoiled, I decided it wasn’t worth pursuing the point any further. But as I looked around the hall on what was supposed to be a celebratory New Year’s Eve, I wasn’t surprised that there were no more than ten people in the audience under the age of forty. This was clearly not an audience-friendly venue hospitable to a younger generation that has grown up with cell phones. And then, imagine my amusement when a colleague who heard about my experience sent me this link. I learned I was not the only person who had gotten his hand slapped at Wigmore Hall!

Thinking about all of this later, I was reminded of a concert I attended a few years before at the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas when the immensely popular Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky appeared with the magnificent Moscow Chamber Orchestra. The audience was filled with ebullient Russians who, when the popular Hvorostovsky came on stage, whistled and cheered, and shouted bravo and took out their phones to snap photos. Ushers ran from person to person admonishing them to stop, but they refused to be denied. It was a happy crowd and the feeling was infectious. By the end of the concert, the audience was singing along when the baritone offered a popular Russian folk song that served as one of his many encores. I left the hall feeling completely upbeat.

Where does one draw the line about cell phone use in the concert hall, especially for a classical music concert? Though I know how I felt after the two evenings, I am still not at all sure there is a simple answer to the question. Cell phones can be a terrible distraction when the music is playing. But does that preclude their use at other times? Should we, as one of my colleagues once remarked, think of every photo taken and shared as a free form of marketing that classical music so desperately needs and that we should celebrate?

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4 Responses to Cell Phones in the Concert Hall

  1. Jason Hodges says:

    I had a very similar situation the other night. Before doing my curtain speech the other night, I asked the artists what their policy on social media is. They said let them take it and tag it. So I indicated in my speech that as long as you turn your flash off, feel free to take pictures. Not everyone did get their flashes off. But it was a younger crowd and they enthusiastically snapped away.

    Survey comments later indicated people didn’t appreciate it. It is a hard balance to strike.

  2. Tom, thank you for this article. At the Boston Children’s Chorus concerts we now encourage our audience members to post on social media. During the curtain speech I ask that they silence their ringers but ask that they post and tell the world how much they love BCC. Thus far we have not received any complaints and my sense is that the audience is happy to hear that they can use their cellphones for this purpose. The idea for this came from a 70 year old plus member of our Communications and Marketing Committee. Social media is no longer for the young! I realize that our singers are not bound by a union which makes this practice easier for us, but perhaps it provide a learning experience for venues and performers throughout the world.

  3. pete duxon says:

    I was intrigued why I was getting traffic from your site!

    Personally I don’t have a problem with venues banning photography. I’d much rather them ban mobiles than have some antisocial idiot who leaves them turned on and they go off in the middle of the performance.

    My frustration is with the double standards of halls like Wigmore giving me a slap and later retweeting a picture from someone.

    A few years a go I was at Wigmore to see Charlie Siem. I was surprised that my tickets were so near the front and I noticed that the clientele were much younger. Throughout the performance people were taking photos and the staff said nothing.

    I don’t mind what the rules are just be consistent.

  4. Thomas Wolf says:

    Thanks to all who have responded to this piece about cellphones in the concert call — I received other comments directly to my email address and have already found myself quoted in someone else’s blog. Clearly this is an issue that resonates with people. I agree that the double standard of places like Wigmore are frustrating as Pete asserts and that Jason is right that it is hard to strike the right balance. One of my mentors — the great flutist Marcel Moyse (speaking about performing but it could be more generally applied) — used to say “Some people will love you no matter what you do and some will hate you no matter what you do.” But as Celeste found in her performances, things are trending toward more liberal policies which I believe is a good thing.

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