A few years ago, I was offered two very good tickets to a New York Knicks game at Madison Square Garden. I invited my daughter to the game, but almost immediately my wife complained, “Why don’t you ever let me go?” So I gave them the two tickets and went to see the legendary pianist Alfred Brendel at Carnegie Hall instead.
Even though my wife and daughter were rooting for the visiting Philadelphia 76ers that night, Knicks fans were very nice to them, and they came home saying that they had had a wonderful time. Nobody spilled beer on them, nobody swore at them, nobody in any way detracted from their fun. Which was awfully nice of them, considering that the Sixers won by 30 points. Meanwhile, 25 blocks north at Carnegie Hall, I was having an entirely different experience.
From the time the geriatric-but-nimble Brendel began tickling the ivories, the three tourists seated in front of me started running their mouths. In German. That was bad enough. Worse was when one of them lifted his right arm and began playing air piano right along with the virtuoso on stage. He did this straight through the Haydn and straight through the Mozart. He did it in languorous, theatrical, ostentatious fashion. At intermission, I leaned forward and asked the woman if she and her friends were from the House of Annoyingness.
“No,” she said. “Does such a thing exist?”
When the second half of the concert began, she and one of the men were gone, but Herr Air Piano was back. Worse still, he was now seated directly in front of me. The first time he lifted his arm to simulate a luxuriant glissando I tapped him on the shoulder and told him to stop. The second time he did it, I grabbed him by the forearm, forcefully yanked it down and said, “If you do that one more time, I’ll break your arm off at the shoulder. I swear to God.”
Other patrons found this distracting, so when the ensuing Beethoven sonata concluded, I left my seat and watched the rest of the concert from the landing. But straight through the encores, I kept staring up at the troublesome Teuton: “It’s on, bitch,” my expression seemed to say. “After the concert, I’m going to punch your lights out.” When the concert ended, he scurried away, perhaps out a side entrance. A wise decision. I would have clocked that little putz.
Though it embarrasses me to say it, this was by no means an isolated incident. Over the course of my lifetime I have attended roughly a thousand classical music concerts. More often than I care to admit, trouble was a-brewing. You expect to get into it with drunks at a Stones or a Ramones concert, yet in a surprisingly large number of instances, I have crossed swords with aficionados of Liszt, Charpentier, even Rameau. Last year, the fat guy sitting next to me at the Metropolitan Opera suddenly opened up his iPad to check his email while the valkyries were belting out their signature number. I covered the gleaming device with my hand: “This is the Metropolitan Opera,” I said. “We don’t do that here.” He left at intermission. Several times I have yanked baseball caps off the heads of scruffy music lovers at Carnegie Hall. “This is Carnegie Hall,” I tell them. “We don’t do that here.” The de-cap-inated always look angry but are ultimately cowed by my harsh demeanor and never put their hats back on.
For the record, I only confront people who are eminently confrontable. I do this because I believe that slobs should always be confronted by patrons big enough and nasty enough to bash their faces in; otherwise, society goes largely unpoliced and the miscreants’ swinish behavior goes on forever. But if you are 6-foot-8 and weigh 290 pounds and you want to wear a filthy White Sox cap at Car-negie Hall, be my guest.
Fans of classical music are widely perceived as cultured and sophisticated and unfailingly polite, but this is an urban myth. The savage, conscienceless, blue-haired ladies who attend the afternoon concerts at Avery Fisher Hall will break your legs in the mad stampede for the exits at the end of Handel’s Messiah. People routinely bring sandwiches and soda and coffee into the concert hall, fan themselves with their programs, crinkle paper bags, and take an hour to unwrap the foil-entwined lozenges they should have popped into their mouths at intermission. They giggle and whisper and refuse to turn off their cell phones and just generally behave like slobs; but if they are sitting anywhere near me, I let them have it. Both barrels. Right between the eyes.
“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.