Alan Gilbert of the New York Philharmonic. Photo: Chris Lee

Did you hear the one about the conductor who stopped the orchestra because a cell phone wouldn’t stop ringing?

It’s no joke. And when you get all the details, it was anything but comic.

It was tech tragedy at its most shrill.

On Tuesday in New York’s Avery Fisher Hall, a packed house listened as renowned conductor Alan Gilbert led the New York Philharmonic through Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, a masterpiece considered to be one of the more moving and reflective in all of music. As the fourth movement neared its conclusion, close to “where music and silence are almost indistinguishable,” as one attendee put it, the iPhone “marimba” alarm began to chime from the front row. You know the one — do-do-DO-do-do-do-do-DO-do-do-do. It chimed. And chimed. And kept chiming.

Finally the conductor stopped the orchestra, turned, and stared at an apparent culprit. Audience members shouted from the audience. “A thousand dollar fine!” “Kick him out!” Interminable moments later, the man turned the damned thing off.

Monica Guzman

What made this etiquette fail sad? The man, a business executive in his 60s, had absolutely no idea how to work his own phone.

The New York Times published a mercifully anonymous interview with the culprit, who became knows as “Patron X,” on Thursday. Reading it brings out a reaction us geeks rarely make room for — pity. The man goes from idiot to victim in just paragraphs, though he’d stayed firmly locked in the former category online.

Shortly after the concert accounts of the incident began to appear on New Yorkers’ personal blogs, which laid out scraps of remembered dialog between the man and the conductor phrase by painful phrase.

“Fine. We’ll wait,” Gilbert is said to have stammered at one point as the marimba kept on chiming. When it finally stopped, Gilbert apologized to the crowd, heard encouraging applause and conducted the symphony to its conclusion.

Some attendees found the whole thing funny, in that WTF, holy-crap-that-could’ve-been-me kind of way. A couple accounts mentioned the clip of Alec Baldwin that played before the show reminding everyone to please silence their cell phones. “I reached into my pocket and turned my phone to silent. Then, in a rare moment of paranoid OCD, I checked that it was on vibrate about 5 separate times over the next few minutes,” wrote attendee Max Kichen. “Had this been a movie, this would have been what we in the film business call ‘foreshadowing.'”

Geeks in the know must have at least been grateful that the iPhone’s alarm tone wasn’t set to “Duck.”

Scene of the crime, Avery Fisher Hall. Photo: Brendan Lynch

When I wrote about social media in 2007, I couldn’t stand the barrage of holier-than-thou articles about all the young people on MySpace and Facebook and how easily they could get into trouble. I got the sense that the ones most likely to stumble into the virtual arms of a criminal or get fired over some public post weren’t the tech-savvy “kids” who were presumably so vulnerable, but the clueless, peering elders so many of the articles’ authors seemed to embody.

We’ve learned since then. To use any technology responsibly, you need to know it.

If the philharmonic interruptor had been some smug, phone-whiz provocateur, smirking to himself as he watched chaos take hold around him, this would’ve been a different story. If he had been disrespectful enough to have left his phone’s ringer on during the show, then reckless enough to have stuck it in some hard-to-reach pocket as the conductor decided he couldn’t play on, he’d have deserved everything he got.

The truth, assuming Patron X was honest with the Times, is harder to imagine and harder to bear. One of the man’s companies (he runs two) had replaced his BlackBerry with an iPhone the day before the concert.

He’d had listened to Alec and made sure it was on vibrate before the show. When the alarm started ringing, he didn’t know it was his phone. He didn’t even know phones came with alarms, he told the Times. (What? Really? Aww!) And when he did suspect his phone was the chimer, he didn’t know how to stop it.

It killed me, the image of this 20-year subscriber to the orchestra, panicked, “pressing buttons” on the iPhone, not understanding this thing that was so undeniably his in the eyes of all around him, and not even knowing why it was making his life so acutely miserable in those moments when every eye — including those of one very pissed off conductor — were on him. And there was his wife, sitting next to him, helpless.

It’s just too innocent.

There’s no question young teenage phone hogs have their own etiquette issues to answer for. But I get the sense that the people who most often forget to silence their cell phones in the movie theater or can’t turn the ringers off in that just-tolerable two-ring window aren’t the people who use their cell phones the most, but the ones who use them the least.

Somehow it seems unfair that the people with the thinnest connection to their gadgets can suffer the most humiliation at their hands. But that’s the way of it. It’s hard to blame Patron X for the gaffe, but you can’t exactly blame the phone.

Can you? I’ve barely touched a BlackBerry. If I’d just swapped my iPhone for one (oh God no) and brought it to the theater the next day, would I have known what the hell to do to turn off an alarm that I had no idea was set?

“I can’t wait ‘til I hit up the ballet and we get a streaker!” Kinchen joked at the end of his post.

That would have been much easier to take.

Previously on GeekWire: Theater geeks who text and tweet will be welcomed with open arms at this arts center

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  • Guest

    It’s 2012, people. People’s phones are going to ring during performances. If a conductor is professional enough to proceed when patrons cough, he is professional enough to continue when iPhone rings unexpectedly. It is simply not rational to expect that every audience member will be totally silent during a performance. Mistakes will always be made.

    Alan Gilbert, like so many conductors, simply lacks the composure necessary to survive in the 21st century. I’d like to see him replaced with a man who doesn’t freeze up when an electronic cough is uttered.

    • Michael Schutzler

      Bullox. I agree with Monica – know your phone, or else. If it’s brand new, then please shut it off before the performance so you are sure it’s off. You compare this event to coughing. Coughing is an involuntary act. Turning off your phone (or failing to properly set it to silent) is an act of will. It’s 2012 and you say, wake up. I say, grow up. Are you sitting in a theater by yourself? Great. Leave your phone on. Let it ring. Are you sitting in a theater with hundreds of others? Then show some courtesy and civility and behave. Turn it off.

      • Guest

        When my phone goes off, it does so involuntarily. I don’t choose to be informed of a situation involving my children while I am enjoying a music performance, but when such a situation occurs, I will not wait a few hours to react to it. Please don’t be so selfish as to tell me to disregard my family’s safety for the sake of your personal entertainment.

        As a society we need to accept that communications devices are no different from shoe-shuffling, jewellery-clinking, and coughing in the orchestra of noises that permeate our experience at the theatre. If you want to experience classical music without the involuntary actions of your fellow human beings and their incidental possessions (e.g. mobile phones, watches, etc) then I recommend purchasing a classical album on iTunes and listening to it with iPhone and some good headphones.

        • FrankCatalano

          For those full of self-importance: If you have to have a phone on during a performance, put it in vibrate or silent mode. At least you can glance at it without accompanying the orchestra and aurally disturbing other patrons who paid to attend, in aggregate, much more than you did.

          That’s why, in the pre-mobile phone days, those who might anticipate a call from a babysitter or loved one gave them the performance hall’s phone number so an usher could notify them of an urgent call.

          Or if you can’t bear to restrain the mobile device you purchased and control, stay home and stream the audio, play the MP3 or rent the video for the sake of the rest of the audience willing to watch a performance that is not interrupt driven.

          • Guest

            Vibrations are not silent, Frank. In my experience they can make as much noise as a ringer while in a clothing pocket. In either case, it is up to the conductor to remain professional when I emit an electronic cough. If a small vibrosound is enough to shake a man’s confidence, that man should not be conducting my orchestra.

            Frank, the symphony exists because of the patronage of wealthy technocrats like myself. When I attend a performance, 21st-century decorum is the rule of the day.

          • FrankCatalano

            I always recommend wealthy technocrats engage their own private orchestras. My brother conducts one in Paris. Always glad to make the introduction.

        • Guest Response

          “…be so selfish as to tell me to disregard…” Before you use the word “selfish”, look in the mirror. It must be nice to be so important that your communication needs are a higher priority than the multitudes around you trying to enjoy a performance. I wonder how you survived without a cell phone? I guess you don’t know how to use SMS to receive text messages?

          As a society we need to respect each other and show more courtesy. How we handle our communications and specifically our cell phones are a choice and are therefore voluntary whether you are on the sending or receiving end of a call or text. Quit trying to make excuses for poor behavior and grow up.

      • Monica Guzman

        One ring, you’re annoyed. Two rings, you cringe. Three rings, you’re angry. According to several accounts, Patron X’s iPhone alarm went off over and over and over again, for much longer than a cough. Judging from the audience’s reaction, I think it safe to assume Gilbert was in the right to have stopped the orchestra when he did. He was nearing the end of a renowned piece of music and he knew, at that point, that there was no way the audience was getting its money’s worth from the experience. It’s good to ignore an occasional ring and forge ahead. But in this case, it sounds like Gilbert was in the right to have stopped the show and defended his audience by calling out the culprit himself.

    • Guest Response

      A cough or sneeze you cannot control. At best you can smother the noise. An iPhone you can. Simple respect and courtesy should be observed. Why do you have to have the phone on during a performance to begin with? If you are expecting a critical communication during the performance then you probably shouldn’t be at the event to begin with.There is simply no excuse. After all it is 2012 and cell phones have been around along time now.

  • L Lam

    I’ve got a great idea for a feature – like the 4S’s location-based alerts, when you are detected to be inside a theater or church etc the phone silences itself automatically OR at least pops up an easy-to-silent button on your lock screen for those who don’t know how to silence their phones.

    • Monica Guzman

      @twitter-57983979:disqus , you might appreciate this line from an angry Letter to the Editor regarding this episode: “First, cellphone blockers installed in theaters and concert halls are long overdue — the logical solution, yet it is never done. Typical!”

  • Harry Monmouth

    I once had a sony ericsson that I would always turn off completely rather than just put on silent and then during one performance I discovered that the alarm still worked even when it was turned off.

    • Monica Guzman

      This is an interesting feature of the iPhone and, it sounds like, a few others — that the alarm sound will work even when the phone’s ringer is set to silent. It makes sense, and I think I prefer to it to an alternative. It would stink to have to remember to have the ringer on any time I know an alarm is coming. So the rule of thumb is this: when set to silent, your phone will make no sounds you did not specifically tell it to make. So alarms get through.

  • Harry Monmouth

    I once had a sony ericsson that I would always turn off completely rather than just put on silent and then during one performance I discovered that the alarm still worked even when it was turned off.

  • CWE

    A serious question: How many iPhone owners here have had alarms magically already setup on their phones? Set to a ringtone that is NOT the stock alarm sound? 
    I don’t blame Patron X, but perhaps the IT staff who setup his phone for him. Someone, somewhere, set that alarm on his phone. Maybe his wife? His kids? A naughty IT guy?
    Something is missing from this story, and as a tech/iPhone geek I demand to know the truth! My precious couldn’t possibly have done this Patron X so wrong.

    • Monica Guzman

      I did wonder if any heads rolled back at Patron X’s company over the alarm, the phone, the whole thing. Possibly he himself set the alarm without knowing it. But if he’s being honest with the Times, and he didn’t know phones came with alarms to begin with (again — really?), then maybe there was some mischief in the background…

    • Brent Enarson

      Marimba’s not stock?  If it was a prank, it should have been set to that defcon submarine “dive! dive! dive!” alarm sound.  

      • Monica Guzman

        Or “Duck.” I still say the quacks would’ve been CRAZY. </mischiefmoni)

    • joshc

      Agreed. On second reading parts of this story don’t make sense: iPhone doesn’t come with any pre-set alarms and when an alarm is going off you don’t need to look through hundreds of “buttons” to turn it off. Cancel and snooze are the only options on the home screen when an alarm is ringing. 

      Finally, there’s a very easy way to make sure your phone doesn’t emit sounds during a performance: by just turning it off instead of “silent”.

  • Erik Peterson

    No sympathy.  If he didn’t know how to use it, he should have left it outside.

  • Christina Trapolino

    Check one off for Android in the winning column — Tasker should make this article part of its marketing strategy.

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