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Shut Up, Please

One man’s approach to a problem of modern music

Jul 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 42 • By JOE QUEENAN
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“How about we let Brahms handle this?” I once snapped at an addled patriarch sitting behind me when he insisted on humming throughout the composer’s uncharacteristically delicate Third Symphony. The symphony is in the key of F; he was humming it in X-flat. “Just Brahms and the orchestra. You keep out of it.” Another time, a woman complained to her husband that she had trouble seeing the violin soloist on center stage because the man seated directly in front of her had a “ridiculously big head.” The man she was referring to was me.

“You have a ridiculously big mouth,” I told her. “We are as God made us.”

Two years ago, I was attending a New York Philharmonic concert that featured Emmanuel Ax hammering away on the 88s. He did a superb job with Debussy’s Pagodes, but I couldn’t really enjoy the performance because the grizzled old coot sitting a few seats to the left in the row directly behind me was snoring. I poked him with my program after the piece ended and told him to shape up—but he snored through the next piece, too. After intermission, the industrious but not especially scintillating Alan Gilbert launched into Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. More sawing logs could be heard to my rear. In the interval between the third and fourth movements, I turned around and stuck my finger into the man’s chest.

“As you know,” I said, “this is the slow movement that was played by the Philharmonic at Bobby Kennedy’s funeral. Leonard Bernstein was the conductor that day. The service was held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a temple sacred to Irish-Americans for socio-political reasons I will not go into at this juncture. My name is Queenan. I am Irish-American. I cannot overestimate the displeasure I will feel if you don’t stay awake during this movement. I simply cannot.”

The movement was played with exquisite precision and deep sensitivity by the orchestra. Maestro Gilbert was at his very best. The Mahler, as always, was sublime. And for the rest of the concert, nary a snore was heard anywhere in my vicinity. Thus ended another eventful night at the concert hall.

Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of One for the Books

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