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Dial M for Mahler

The “iPhone Marimba Man” accused of ruining the New York Philharmonic’s recent Mahler 9th was stoned to death this past weekend in a secluded alley of the city’s meat-packing district. “It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it,” said one conductor wearing a woolen ski mask to conceal his identity. Photographers from New York Post and The National Enquirer were given exclusive access to the scene and are expected to distribute their lurid photos later today. 

Alright, I’ve indulged my tabloid fantasy long enough, and the point is obvious: something needs to be done, but exactly what? Let’s forget, for a moment, the Tic Tac shakers, incessant chatterers, and bored program-scrollers who ruin the listening experience as well.

On Saturday evening in Houston, Kirill Gerstein’s stunning interpretation of the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto (the second movement, of course) was interrupted by a carousel-like melody coming from the left side of about row T. The man made a point of shuffling a long time in his coat pockets and telling everyone how sorry he was, then he left the house. Of course, the damage had been done. All I could think of was Peggy Gravel in John Waters’ classic 1977 film, Desperate Living: “Sorry? What good is that? How can you ever repay the last thirty seconds you have stolen from my life? I hate you, your husband, your children, and your relatives!”      

Kirill Gerstein, Pianist


After intermission, Hans Graf conducted Houston Symphony in Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3. Once again, the middle movement ended just as another patron’s mobile phone decided to chime along. My companions wondered if the score called for off-stage tubular bells.

It’s now 23 years since I heard the Boston Symphony Orchestra premiere of John Cage’s 101, perhaps the only orchestral work in which an intermittent cell phone might be welcome. Of course, nobody programs that stunning work – we’re going to have to wait decades more. Would that Cage were still alive, I’m sure he would have something brilliant to say about this whole matter. I will never forget that performance, the nearest to a Rite of Spring-like riot I’ve ever witnessed. At the conclusion, Cage took his curtain call dressed in faded denim and a pair of black Reeboks. In his own subtle way, he was always making some statement against the pretentions of the bourgeoisie, and I’m sure he’d find a clever way to embarrass them out of their current iPhone addiction.  

Houston Symphony is doing an earnest and sophisticated job of bringing the symphonic concert experience into the 21st century, and it should be said that the management is very clear about reminding everyone to turn off electronics. The recent “Rach Fest” was promoted with appealing graphics that recall an old boxing competition, with the tagline, “Piano heavyweight Kirill Gerstein takes on all four Rachmaninoff piano concertos in a three-week event, THIS IS RACHFEST!”

It was an extremely unique series of events, in which the audience had the rare opportunity to hear an artist three weeks in a row, in repertory that showed a wide range of his interpretation, his “attitude.” We got to know him, and most everyone I spoke with has fallen in love with the man. He never wore a necktie while he played, just a simple white shirt and a loose black suit, exuding a relaxed confidence on stage.

Rachmaninoff wasn’t a one-hit wonder when it came to piano concerti.  Rather, he was a two-hit wonder. Piano Concerto No. 2 and 3 showed Gerstein’s gifted voicing at the keyboard, from the unison melody that opens the latter (conducted by Edward Gardner) to the internal voices in the opening F-minor chords of the former.

He isn’t a big pedaler; his legato comes from his fingers, not his feet. Most often he keeps a little something in reserve so that you don’t find he’s wearing his heart on his sleeve. These works can easily become maudlin. When they are slightly restrained, as they were in Houston, they emerge as perfect compositions. It’s no wonder that Piano Concerto No. 3 was of significant inspiration to the New York School poets, in particular Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler. Intellect brewed with passion is a heady mix.   

They sparkled even more brilliantly in the context of the first and fourth concerti. The piano part in the first is certainly less skillful than Rachmaninoff would have liked, long sections of the solo part become buried in the orchestral texture no matter how hard the players attempt otherwise. Hans Graf and Gerstein let it be what it is, and I’m grateful to finally know it a little better. The Piano Concerto No. 4 is a kind of twilight love-letter to the great heyday of very late romantic pianism. The melodies don’t stick in your head, however, as you imagine the credits slowly scrolling in Rachmaninoff’s mind.

Houston Symphony engaged a gifted videographer to film the performances each week. At first I thought this a tacky move, until I found myself mesmerized by the close-ups on Gerstein’s hands and on the faces of soloists in various passages. It also created a certain dynamic tension in the hall as well. The players seemed aware they were being filmed, and I didn’t notice one of them slouching during a long rest. In the hands of a less talented videographer, it could have been a disaster.

All of this points to the fact that music is theater, and there are numerous non-musical events taking place while the air is vibrating and we are supposedly just listening. We are watching as well, and the visual information mixes with our experience of the whole. Visual events are not necessarily disruptions; unwanted aural events like cell phones are hell.    

A few days ago, Houston Symphony announced its upcoming season. There are numerous highlights, and it appears the organization is increasing its sophisticated visually-oriented offerings, including a screening of West Side Story conducted by Steven Reineke. There is a finale performance before Graf’s departure of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” next May. By that time, will they have installed metal detectors or banned iPhones from the hall? I really don’t want Graf, or his audience, to suffer what happened to Alan Gilbert in New York.


  1. You know I am so with you with the rudeness we see at most music events. We have many seconds and minutes stolen from us with callous patrons. Metal detectors sound find to me!

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