Billing the concerts last week as the Season Finale suggested we might be entering the realm of Alternate Facts, since many knew the ensemble was scheduled to return for four more performances. The season would really end with the orchestra accompanying a week-long run of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, yet another of the film night performances sneaking across the boarder between classical and popular music to infest our schedule. Cherubini, Chant sur la mort du Joseph Haydn was an interesting choice in this era of Fake News; the work was composed in reaction to a (failing?) London publication's erroneous report that the revered composer had died. Having survived in spite of Cherubini's request that all copies be destroyed once he learned the error upon which it was based, the star-crossed composition was given an interesting performance here on Saturday evening. About seven measures into the quiet introduction, in response to an inadvertent noise from the stage, the Maestro stopped the performance, turned and excoriated the audience for the disruption. Breaking the fourth wall is often an invitation for the least inhibited among us to open up their own particular jar of crazy, and so, true to form, in the uncomfortable silence following the Maestro's remarks somebody yelled out something, a few people clapped, a few more tittered, none of which did anything but make the atmosphere more tense. With all hope of quickly putting a minor disturbance behind us gone, we started again from the beginning.
There were many theories put forth by musicians to try and explain what had happened. Perhaps the Maestro reacted to some audience members' spontaneous expressions of surprise over the onstage noise, which also had a visual component. Maybe the quick assignation of blame to the audience was a show of solidarity with musicians. The only constant was the poor reporting in the press, beginning of course with the premature pronouncement of Haydn's death, and continuing with both local papers writing up the incident as a concert halted due to 'coughing', a misrepresentation parroted by one of the more popular classical music blogs.
Humans, on either side of the proscenium, occasionally make unintended noises. With training and concentrated focus on the task at hand, most musicians are able to block out whatever the audience is doing, even when it is startling, like someone talking loudly, falling ill, or even a fistfight breaking out in the box seats (the so-called Brawl at the Hall). Unexpected surprises from the stage can be harder to ignore, since (ostensibly) we are paying close attention to each other. Where force of concentration is insufficient, the professional code of conduct keeps most musicians focused on their own tasks when faced with anything from a broken string or dropped mute to someone vomiting onstage (yes, that happened). Lacking the training, not bound by a professional code of conduct, and probably not concentrating as deeply, audience members can be forgiven for spontaneous reactions to something startling or unusual.
Coughs, on the other hand, are often symptoms of a bored or uninvolved audience. A disinterested group of people tends to cough and fidget more. Sometimes the very same audience that coughed a lot during one part of a performance will become riveted later on, and much more quiet. Concerts with superstar performers tend to draw audiences that contain more people who are not really there to hear the music, so these crowds often contain more people who are disengaged from the performance, inattentive, and noisy. But, no matter who is performing, audience behavior is a reflection on what is happening on stage. Becoming irritated with an audience is like yelling at the wind. Asking people not to cough is like telling someone not to think of a pink elephant and then getting upset when they do.