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Bruckner and the Cellphone

Last Sunday’s performance of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony by Christian Thielemann and the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall was very possibly the peak concert experience of the New York season. And yet when it ended I discovered myself screaming.

Here is what happened:

Bruckner’s Eighth lasts eighty minutes and is exhaled in a single breath. It invites – it demands – a pact with the audience. It is communal. It cannot be fairly experienced in a living room.

On this occasion, Carnegie had been sold out for weeks. The audience was a marvel – if not fully inter-generational (not enough listeners under the age of thirty), it was remarkably international. It took Thielemann barely a moment to secure perfect quiet: 2,790 souls in thrall. He navigated the great structure with monumental assurance.  

The last movement ends with a famous passage: the apocalyptic “coda.” Bruckner pauses for a long, capacious breath. Then he restarts his engines quietly, gradually – and with the unmistakable promise of a culminating event. In a compositional tour de force both ingenious and inevitable, he proceeds to pile all the symphony’s themes atop one another. This achieved, he drives a refulgent final thrust. Thereafter, Thielemann and the musicians froze. And so did everyone else save a jackass in the left balcony who felt entitled to bellow “BRAVO!!!” The moment was shattered. Thielemann reacted with visible consternation..

But there was worse: the curse of the cellphone.

Not long after the performance began, the little lights began appearing, raised high. The hall’s ushers dutifully raced hither and yon, up and down aisles, gesturing frantically. And the phones were put away.

Some clever listeners, however, realized that they could film the end of the performance – the famous coda – with impunity. There would be no time for intervening ushers.

With the pregnant beginning of the coda, I moved to the edge of my seat. I was sitting in my preferred location – center Balcony. (The sound is cleaner than downstairs and the sightlines are impeccable.) As it happened, one of the offenders was seated directly in front of me. Because the rake is steep, she held her phone high – blocking my field of vision with her bright miniature screen.

The ovation was deafening. To get her attention I touched her shoulder and screamed: “DO YOU REALIZE HOW DISTRACTING IT IS TO WHIP OUT YOUR CELLPHONE AND START FILMING?!”

This surprising distraction enfurIated her. She whipped around and yelled: “HOW DARE YOU TOUCH ME!!! HOW DARE YOU TOUCH ME!!!”

Mercifully, she was packing up and leaving. As she continued to shriek her displeasure, I advised her: “YOU SHOULD BE BARRED FROM THIS HALL!!! SCRAM! GET OUT!”

Reflecting on this experience, I discover that her behavior was less discourteous than it was selfish. As far as she was concerned, she was the only listener who mattered.

A recent book by Bill McKibbin is accurately titled The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon: A Graying American Looks Back at his Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What the Hell Happened. McKibben has an answer. In the world of cellphones it is both a cause and an effect. He calls it “hyper-individualism.”

I cannot think of a purer example than the woman who filmed Bruckner’s coda and took it home as a memento.

(I will have more to say — much more — about 21st-century Bruckner in The American Scholar next Fall.)

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