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?