Classical music performances are typically rather formal and understated affairs, with an unwritten code of etiquette that the uninitiated or non-compliant breach at their own peril, risking disapproving looks and murmurs from fellow attendees. Audience participation is generally limited to listening quietly while the music is played, and applauding politely at the end of each piece. Those who don't like the performance are expected to keep their criticisms to themselves until after the concert is over.
Every once in a while, though, classical decorum breaks down, and chaos ensues. Perhaps the most famous example is the 1913 Paris première of The Rite of Spring, a ballet with choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky and music by Igor Stravinsky. The rhythmically jarring music, together with the raw choreography depicting pagan fertility rites, shocked the audience, and a riot erupted as the work's supporters and opponents clashed both vocally and physically. At a 1973 performance of Four Organs by minimalist composer Steve Reich, the repetitive nature of the music provoked an outcry from some audience members, including one woman who "banged her head on the front of the stage, wailing 'Stop, stop, I confess!'"
Most recently, a performance in San Francisco was disrupted by an unhappy listener, prompting the performer to leave the stage prematurely and setting a spirited argument amongst audience members. The program featured new and experimental works for viola, and was titled "Longer Burning," in a sly reference to an old standard from the viola joke repertoire that begins, "What's the difference between a violin and a viola?"
One of the performers, John Eichenseer, who goes by the stage name JHNO, presented a work that featured amplification and electronic effects, and some audience members found the volume unbearably loud. One listener was so disturbed that he began complaining audibly, calling for the music to stop. The performer obliged, throwing his viola down and exiting the stage. To the surprise of many in attendance, the disorderly audience member turned out to be Bernard Zaslav, who is not only an accomplished and respected violist himself, but one who has a long history of supporting and performing contemporary music.
The first account I read of this incident dubbed it "ViolaGate!" and it seemed at first blush to be just another one of those things you come across online that are slightly funny, sad and enraging all at the same time, that add some excitement to your morning coffee for a minute before you move on to the next thing. But when I went back for a second look, I found much more to the story, and some musical food for thought.
There are a couple of elements to the story that are truly sad: the thrown viola suffered real and expensive damage, and while we musicians like to joke about the viola, a busted instrument is never funny. Further, the disruptive audience member later explained that the loud amplification was causing him great pain, and that he didn't feel he could safely exit the darkened performance space, as he walks with a cane and had recently suffered a fall, among other health concerns.
But here's the bright spot in all of this: the parties involved showed up in the comments section of the blog post linked above to discuss what happened, and while there was disagreement, both factual and interpretive, the discussion was remarkably civil and respectful. Evidently, phone conversations have followed and apologies have been made. And the incident has sparked renewed debate on important questions in the world of contemporary classical music (that's not an oxymoron, really!), as cellist Joan Jeanrenaud puts it so articulately: "What does constitute music? ... What are the reasons for music to be amplified or acoustic? ... Why do we have expectations for certain genres of music? What makes music for one person but not for another?"
Each new generation of classical musicians explores these questions and finds their own answers. Miss Music Nerd just hopes that no more instruments -- even violas -- are injured in the process!
Here, by the way, is an example of what so enraged those Parisians way back in 1913: