Friday, December 5, 2014

Cough suppressor

Classical music’s tempest du jour is about the Korean violinist Kyung-Wha Chung, who in a London recital, her comeback after nine years off the stage due to a finger injury, reacted verbally to coughing in the audience.

The account that’s circulating most widely has Chung singling out a child, suggesting that the youngster wasn’t old enough to be there. Outrage has ensued in mass and social media: Chung is cast as a highbrow bully who picked on a tot to compensate for her own nervousness and artistic shortcomings.

Others who were at the concert, however, report that the violinist suggested that the child be given a glass of water, and that the child was fidgeting and making assorted noises before the coughing fit. Everyone who was there seems to agree that the adults in the audience were noisy enough, never mind the underage contributions.

As is so often the case in classical concert contretemps, this one boils down to a question of etiquette, also known (in some quarters) as good manners.

Is it acceptable for a performer to correct an ill-behaved audience? Or should the artist stare silently but meaningfully at the offender(s)? Or just soldier on, no matter what?

Is it out-of-bounds to tell parents that their children aren’t ready to sit through a classical recital (if indeed that’s what Chung did), and if so, in response to what degree of disruptive behavior? How about grownups? (Ever sat next to someone who hums or sings along?)

Nothing I’ve read about this incident mentions the concert hall’s ushers or management. Do the people running the house have some responsibility to intervene when things get out of hand? The hands-off approach to audience misbehavior has led to some confrontations among patrons in recent years – nothing too physical yet, as far as I recall; but I suspect it’s only a matter of time before blows are exchanged somewhere.

I don’t for a minute buy into the notion that this was a temperamental artist trying to impose an outdated, persnickety code of conduct on paying customers, further alienating people from classical music.

How many in Chung’s audience paid – handsomely, we may safely guess, for such a high-profile performance – to hear other people cough, fidget and otherwise insert themselves between the musician and listeners?

Some undoubtedly attended to see and be seen at a heavily publicized celebrity event; but I think we can be reasonably sure that, in a program of Mozart, Prokofiev, Bach and Franck (glitzy showpieces notably absent), the vast majority came to hear Chung make music.

What got in the way of that exchange was the problem. Chung’s response to it may not have been an ideal solution. But an outrage? Hardly.