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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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