by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, March 26, 2001.
Why did a man start yelling at a concert of Bach cantatas the other night, at the John Jay College Theatre? From eyewitness accounts, a story of spiralling rage and deepening obsession has emerged. The trouble originated with Peter Sellars, whose controversial opera productions have transplanted classics of the repertory to such settings as Cape Canaveral and Trump Tower. At the invitation of Lincoln Center, Sellars staged Bach’s Cantata No. 82, "Ich habe genug" ("I have enough"), as the death scene of a woman in a sick ward. The mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson performed in a thin hospital gown, a light bulb shining in her face. As the concert got under way, a listener on the right-hand aisle started muttering to himself, apparently because he found the production offensive. Another listener asked him several times to be quiet, but the mutterer was undeterred. "This is ridiculous," he was heard to say. "No way to treat Bach." Then, just before the end of the piece, the mutterer belched, and his neighbor let loose with a bloodcurdling cry of "SHUT UP, ALREADY!" The heft and color of the voice recalled Jackie Gleason in his prime. Unfazed, Lieberson launched into the cantata’s final aria, whose first words were, conveniently, "Mein Gott!"
The "Ich habe genug" affair exemplified the troubling new phenomenon of concert rage: classical-music fanatics who can no longer abide the coughing, muttering, shuffling, and fidgeting of their neighbors. Lincoln Center has become a war zone of withering glances and hissed asides. Unfortunately, the indignation of the annoyed has itself become annoying. The gallery of concert-hall grotesques—the woman who unwraps a lozenge as if it were an unexploded bomb; the man who underscores a moment of Mahlerian heartbreak with a shattering cough; the couple who rush out ten minutes before the end of "Das Rheingold" to catch the 10:23 to Scarsdale—should be expanded to include the vigilantes of musical virtue, who spend more time scowling at their neighbors than looking at the stage. Shush not, lest ye be shushed.
With marketers and educators trying desperately to bring classical music to broader audiences, it seems strange that the inner circles of the initiated are so determined to uphold a stifling code of silence. In all, it might be a good thing that people are making more noise in the concert hall: audiences have been altogether too sedate since the glory days of Lisztomania and "The Rite of Spring." Great performers deserve bizarre behavior. If Lieberson’s performance had been anything less than extraordinary, no one would have bothered to have a nervous breakdown in public. The shouter presumably attacked the mutterer because the singer’s hold on him had been broken. In the aria "Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen," Lieberson’s total embrace of the music—her reluctance to let go of its repeated phrases, even of its silences—sent the audience into a trance. The result was so far outside everyday experience that some kind of reality check was needed. Still, most members of the audience would probably have preferred to wait a few minutes before being reminded that they were sitting in a theatre on Tenth Avenue.
The following afternoon, Thomas Quasthoff gave an equally staggering performance, at Alice Tully Hall, and he offered his own approach to crowd control. There were a few wheezing tubercular outpatients scattered throughout the room, and, with the ease of one who has been through it all, Quasthoff shut them up and won them over. "Do not cough until the concert is ended," he said, after the intermission, "because I love this music so much." There was utter silence for Brahms’s "Four Serious Songs." After two encores, a woman headed for the exit, and the singer called out to her, "Wait, I am not done." She missed a shockingly good rendition of "My Way," in idiomatic Hoboken English. Quasthoff is a German baritone who in passing moments sounds like a Russian bass or an Italian tenor. In Schubert’s "Der Doppelgänger," the sense of time-and-space-defying trance returned; manipulating the extremes of his voice, he seemed at first to be miles away and then to be inches from our ears. He is only about four feet tall, having been born with a thalidomide disability, but by the end of the day he towered over everyone, like a new god of the concert stage.
In the audience, people were weighing in on the now notorious "Shut up! Mein Gott!" incident. The previous night, the performers had supposedly been talking it over backstage, and no one could make sense of it entirely. The conductor Craig Smith, whose Emmanuel Music ensemble had given Lieberson an immaculate accompaniment, was heard to say, "It was nothing like Barcelona." A few minutes later, he said again, "It was nothing like Barcelona." Someone eventually asked him what had happened in Barcelona. He replied, "They threw food."