23 Mar

At a pre-performance lecture about the two pieces we would be hearing in twenty minutes, Thomas Adès’ Polaris and Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, we were given a demonstration of resolution in Western tonality. The speaker played three chords, knowing we would hear the fourth and final chord clearly in our heads. Except for the woman four rows back who heard it outside her head when, compelled by narcissism or stupidity, she sung it out loud. I turned to see a large-framed woman with jet-black hair in a white gown riddled with thick black graphic lines as though she had shaken the stained glass pieces out of her attire with a voice that could call a ship in during a squall. Next up on the menu, the lecturer went to play a piece of the Mahler Fourth Movement on a DVD player that would not work. As I was against the wall, I traced the electrical chord to my feet and convinced myself I had kicked it out of the socket. This would prove to be an omen.

I settled into my seat in the orchestra. Behind me, a man in a wig, carrying an oversized Louis Vuitton man-purse, crawled over patrons to his seat repeating an admonition the entire journey: “Don’t get up. Do not get up. Do not stand up. Don’t get up.” Having crippled everyone he had screamed at, he crouched into his seat next to his date, a woman so garishly attired I imagined she had been passing the QVC studios when they exploded all over her. She was tanner than his purse. At the conclusion of the thirteen-minute long Adès piece, the man said to anyone who would listen, which was compulsory given his diaphragmatic prowess, “That was horrible. An embarrassment,” then proceeded to the men’s room, I supposed to check the alignment of his rug or in search of a more suitable life-partner.

I remained in the Hall, eagerly anticipating what is arguably the finest symphony ever written, ever heard, the latter a pleasure denied Gustav Mahler who died the year before its premier exactly one hundred years ago.

Alan Gilbert took to the podium again, and the pulses of Mahler’s irregular heartbeat, the achingly beautiful motifs of the First Movement filled Avery Fisher. It is quite an honor to hear the New York Philharmonic play Mahler, as the composer spent his last years at the beginning of the last century conducting this orchestra. And it was one of the orchestra’s more beloved conductors, Leonard Bernstein, who re-introduced the rather forgotten Mahler masterpieces to late 20th-Century audiences. Mahler’s obsession with Death, with loss, with adieus to the glory of Nature run sorrowfully through all his pieces, but he seems to have poured the better part of his grief into his Ninth. Bernstein, who musically suggested we were living in an Age of Anxiety, believed Mahler heralded in the Century of Death, the world wars and atrocities he somehow scored without ever living through them.

To listen to the Ninth Symphony, one can’t help but agree. Lush melodies give way to anguished harmonies, strings yield to ominous timpani, familiar forms become fractured, soothing winds become twisted, and time rushes towards nothing. It is nearly unbearable.

Nearly three-quarters into the relentlessly heartbreaking Fourth Movement, the unabashedly mournful movement, the hopelessness turns quiet and inevitable, the orchestra plays zurückhaltend, or very slowly and held back, with long breaths of silence. Time warps. Clocks stop. Except for the man’s, house left and towards the stage, who, despite every possible warning imaginable, in print, in spoken word, in projected slides, thrust himself into the score when his iPhone’s alarm sounded with the cheery, loopy, obnoxious “Marimba” warning that it was time to take his meds or put the cat out or check the broiler before bed. On and on it went and all eyes, thousands of them, thousands of angry, hopeless, death-stares descended in his direction.

Clearly paralyzed by his predicament, he chose to plead the fifth during the Ninth. “Not my phone. Nope. Not me.” So on it went, interminably as the ire throughout the Hall became measurable as the measures otherwise quietly ticked by. It was terrifying.

Finally, and mercifully, Alan Gilbert, in one of the most heroically composed gestures in the cavalcade of centuries of gaffes in the performing arts, stopped the orchestra. He laid his left hand upon the wooden support behind him on the podium, and turned to the offender. He stared for long graceful forgiving moments. And still the Marimba played. In a voice barely audible save for the acoustics of a symphony hall, Gilbert said to him sternly but flatly, “Acknowledge it is your phone and turn it off.”

In the age of anxiety, the man in the audience stuck to his guns and froze in his seat. The zippy little tune echoed throughout Avery Fisher Hall leaving me to wonder if one of the crackpot composers at Apple realizes he had his New York Philharmonic debut this evening. “Please, just turn it off before we continue,” pleaded the Maestro. Nothing.

There is a fine line between civilization and anarchy, and here, in the very heart of one of the world’s nexuses of civility, people began dancing all over the line. It is of note that these were New Yorkers who, despite having the resources to shell out a fortune for their seats, battled bosses and subways and traffic and shoving and bossy wigged men to get to them. One man stood up in a kind of silent protest of outrage. Further off, a more pragmatic woman stood up and looked poised to pounce in the direction of the noise. From the Upper Circles, where things are real, les miserables in the cheaper seats, a man bellowed, “Kick him out!” Someone more litigious answered, “Thousand dollar fine!” Everyone began talking now, nervous titters, scolding, animated, lost, rudderless, no one heeding Mr. Gilbert’s call to calm that was no longer audible. It seemed as though the world were going to end.

And then, it stopped.

Mr. Gilbert turned to the fractured audience and offered up this bit of reasoned eloquence: “Normally, when there is a disturbance in the Hall, it is best to ignore it to maintain the sense and emotional impact of the entire piece. But when faced with an incident so egregious, it is best to stop and re calibrate. I apologize.” The audience erupted in applause and five rows ahead of us, the woman in the broken stained-glass window dress from the lecture was on her feet, alone among thousands, as I imagine she lives a larger part of her life.

The New York Philharmonic rewound themselves several pages into the score, and plunged superbly, head-long into Death once more. And never has it been more clear to me. So must we all.


20 Responses to “iMahler.”

  1. Hardy Phippen March 23, 2012 at 3:57 pm #

    A Man Purse is called a “murse”. As in mercy.

    • NC Coot March 23, 2012 at 4:10 pm #

      Or Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

  2. Richard Daybell March 23, 2012 at 5:06 pm #


    • NC Coot March 23, 2012 at 5:13 pm #

      Thanks and very much, RD!

  3. Dugutigui March 23, 2012 at 6:18 pm #

    Dear friend, sorry I’m getting you into this ridiculous commitment … but I have nominated you for 3 awards those that abound in the blogosphere …
    In fact I’m doing this because your blog is one of the best for me taste…
    You could find instructions in my blog, if you decide to participate in this Ponzi globoscheme… Dugutigui

    • NC Coot March 23, 2012 at 7:27 pm #

      How kind of you! I’ll definitely look it over!

  4. Dugutigui March 23, 2012 at 8:30 pm #

    Fantastic musical and eventful night masterfully described by our private Mr. e-Gilbert in the blogosphere. Thanks for this excellent article. Just great!

    • NC Coot March 23, 2012 at 11:06 pm #

      Thank you so much, D. I’m so grateful for your advocacy. You’re a loyal blogging pal.

  5. Seven Kitchens Press March 23, 2012 at 9:05 pm #

    You write brilliantly. Thank you.

    • NC Coot March 23, 2012 at 11:01 pm #

      High praise from one of the best.

  6. Fay Moore March 24, 2012 at 5:39 pm #

    Encore! I look forward to more incredibly descriptive prose. You are a gift.

    • NC Coot March 24, 2012 at 6:32 pm #

      How kind, Ms. M.! I’m happy to be following you!

  7. wheresmytbackandotherstories March 24, 2012 at 9:35 pm #

    I watched how this story went viral on cable news more than a month ago and my heart went out to Alan Gilbert during the post-performance interview. The whole performance, the brilliance of Gilbert and the genius of Mahler all overshadowed by the Marimba ring tone. I hope it will not go down in performance history more known for the marimba fiasco than for the excellence of Gilbert and his orchestra.
    I am bowled over by the fact to be reading the whole account from someone who was actually there.
    Your prose is so elegant as it is eloquent.

    • NC Coot March 24, 2012 at 9:45 pm #

      It was HARROWING! I think I have post-traumatic stress, and have kept my phone on “vibrate” ever since.

      Gilbert had constructed an arc of that symphony that night that was so superb, the disappointment of the interruption was infuriating and communal. But out of it, and especially thanks to his cool, came a great sense of triumph. I think everyone felt that something historic had just happened to them. And that is pretty spectacular.

      Not to bore you, but I was a little disappointed the LAPhil had snared Dudamel. Having seen and heard Gilbert conduct for two years now, I couldn’t be happier.

      Thanks again for your careful read and kind words.

      • wheresmytbackandotherstories March 24, 2012 at 9:58 pm #

        I could imagine how harrowing it must have been for you because it was horrendous for me just hearing it from the news (and I didn’t even chunk out a fortune) . I don’t know which was worse though – that or my friend’s who had been saving up for a priced seat at a performance (I forgot if it was the very rare Aida or Tosca) at La Scala only to be seated beside a jet lagged Japanese (I can’t help mentioning the nationality, it’s the fact) who snored throughout the performance.
        Will be poring over your other posts! Have a lovely day!

      • NC Coot March 24, 2012 at 10:00 pm #

        That’s worse, because only your friend had the endure the unendurable.

        I’m reading you as well, with great anticipation.


  8. jesco b. ignatius March 26, 2012 at 12:39 am #

    this was a beautiful post. Mahler’s Ninth has led to some of the best writing moments of my life, though Resurrection and Titan can be a gamble, resulting in flashes of newness to utter psychedelic babble. Mahler’s work has tended to have that effect on me. Greatness achieved by overcoming great challenge. Mr. Gustav would be pleased to read your respectfully lush descriptions.

    • NC Coot March 26, 2012 at 1:38 am #

      I’m so grateful for your compliments and to be following your blog now!

      I has heard Resurrection at Carnegie Hall the year before by the Mariinsky and they blew through the ending like they had a plane to catch. SO disappointing.

  9. Clare April 21, 2012 at 6:53 am #

    Darling, my 2 y.o. doesn’t let me do much internetting so when I get the chance I just pick randomly from the Recent Cranks list (I’d prefer to read them all one by one as they come in – but then, I wouldn’t trade him for anything) and I gotta say I just love this.
    Years ago in NY I saw the original cast performance of The Laramie Project and afterwards the cast came out on stage so we could ask them questions, during which time a cell phone rang backstage. The cast-member who owned the phone ran off-stage to answer it yelling, “REVENGE!!!!”
    xoxo Clare.

    • NC Coot April 21, 2012 at 2:14 pm #

      It thrills me to think you are reading these despite having an infant and a toddler demanding every breath you take. You are an angel. And I miss you only a little less having heard from you in this sweet message.


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