Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Concert distractions

I’ve been prodded to comment – again – on coughing and other unwelcome noises at live classical events. OK, but the prodders may not get satisfaction this time around.

Extramusical distractions have been on the upswing in these parts since the first of the year. Turns out, though, that there may be sound medical reasons.

Over the winter, a doctor told me that “70 percent of the population has become allergic to Richmond,” thanks to an accumulation of pollen, mold and other environmental irritants over the past two or three years. The problem, this doctor said, is a succession of mild winters. Until we experience a long, hard freeze, preferably with a heavy snowfall, our respiratory woes will continue.

What I’ve been hearing in concert halls bears this out. There’s about as much sneezing as coughing, and I’ve heard a lot more of it coming from the stage. The people making music have the biggest stake in not disrupting performances with bronchial asides, so presumably their coughs and sneezes are involuntary.

More people seem to be bringing cough drops to concerts, and more are choosing the brands that are wrapped in wax paper rather than cellophane, so they can be unwrapped quietly. That eases the coughing problem. Sneezing comes on suddenly, and trying to suppress a sneeze can be noisier than the sneeze. So, that we’ll have to live with.

Not so very long ago, quite a few patrons did not consider the dimming of lights, or even the beginning of a performance, sufficient grounds for stopping a conversation. I’m hearing a lot less of that lately.

More people seem to be complying with requests to turn off cell phones and other electronic devices. Occasional bleeps and bloops still intrude, but not as many as I recall from five or 10 years ago – and no more around here than I keep reading about in supposedly more cultured places. (Cell-phone distractions apparently are endemic in New York, for example.)

I have noticed more squeaking seats and doors, random thuds and other hall noises this season. This is partly a maintenance issue. Attention, theater managers: Lubricate your moving parts! Also, remind your staff to keep quiet during performances. Theatergoers, meanwhile, should take care not to leave purses, umbrellas, drink cups, etc., where they may be noisily dropped.

And complainers, a little perspective, please. Coughing and other noises notwithstanding, there aren’t many public places quieter than a concert hall during a classical performance.