Clarence Fanto: Silence the phone, enjoy the concert



Have you ever wished to strangle -- figuratively, of course -- the cellphone-obsessed folks who either deliberately, or forgetfully, fail to silence their devices at a concert, play or any other public performance?

I have. With the high season approaching for our many arts and entertainment attractions in the Berkshires, the selfish individuals who allow ringtone noise to intrude -- inevitably, during the contemplative moments of a symphony, song or soliloquy -- remain the bane of our concert and theater-going experience.

New York's venerable Carnegie Hall seems especially vulnerable to disruptions by a handful who show no respect for the performers on stage nor for the audience.

"The intrusive ringing of cellphones at concerts has become almost commonplace," wrote New York Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini earlier this month.


Describing a "magnificent concert" by the Philadelphia Orch-
estra led by its music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Tom-
masini cited two cellphone rings at the hushed conclusion of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, "America's all-but-official piece of remembrance and mourning."

The intrusion "wiped away the mood of transcendent beauty and sublime sadness that had been created by a breath-stopping performance of this beloved work," he wrote. "Just as the final notes trailed off at the end, that cellphone interruption happened. ... To combat the ringing, people started applauding imm-
ediately. When he turned around, Mr. Nézet-Séguin could not disguise how miffed he was."

The Times critic also cited a recent Carnegie Hall performance by the Atlanta Symphony of Benjamin Britten's haunting, transcendent "War Requiem." The performance was marred "by a cellphone going off at the worst possible moment, just before the consoling final episode of this overpowering work. The conductor Robert Spano held his arms up and waited until the cellphone stopped before continuing. Sometimes, you almost suspect there are concert saboteurs with cellphones poised to disrupt a performance at the most crucial moment."

Two weeks later, Times reviewer James Oestreich recounted a flare-up of cellphone-concert hostilities during a performance by the Bavarian Radio Sym-
phony Orchestra conducted by Mariss Jansons.

On an evening of "wind and rain of near-biblical proportions" outside Carnegie Hall, the maestro was forced to delay the start of a quiet passage when cellphonic alarms resounded through the auditorium. It turns out that a rash of severe-weather alerts roused the devices unsilenced by their heedless owners.

All this reminded me of a recurring fantasy. If only the proprietors of indoor and outdoor stages -- Tanglewood, I'm thinking of you -- could employ existing technology to block incoming cellphone signals while the musicians are playing or the thespians are acting.

Unfortunately, the procedure known as "cellphone jamming" is illegal. The Federal Comm-
unications Commission imposes heavy fines for use of devices that can block cellphone calls, text messages, Wi-Fi networks, and GPS systems. According to the FCC, those are potentially security risks that could be used by terrorists to wreak havoc in public spaces.

"Merely posting a signal jammer ad on sites like violates federal law," Michele Ellision, the FCC's enforcement bureau chief, told U.S. News & World Report. "Signal jammers are contraband for a reason. One person's moment of peace or privacy could very well endanger the safety and well-being of others."

My alternate fantasy -- forbidding patrons from bringing their devices into a performance space -- would never fly with civil libertarians as well as much of the public.

At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, it often seems that many people, especially "digital natives" of the current generation, are addicted to their devices.

At Boston University last Sunday, commencement speaker Gov. Deval Patrick urged graduates to put away smartphones and tablets with their endless texts and tweets and engage with other people, face-to-face, being fully present.

Patrick reminded more than 6,800 graduates and about 25,000 guests that "real human connection, the nuance of empathy and understanding, is often more gradual and elongated than Twitter. It requires intimacy."

As recounted by The Boston Globe, the governor eschewed politics to focus on personal communication, specifically hu-
man connections outside the digital realm. He recalled an incident when one of his daughters was fully engaged with her device rather than with people standing beside her.

"My point is that human intimacy still matters,'' Patrick declared. "It still depends on looking someone in the eye, actively listening, being present. ... That's how we build trust, how we convey kindness and grace, how we love, how we heal the world."

The Globe reporter observed that many graduates put down their cellphones to rise as the crowd gave him a standing ovation. One young man who had been awarded a degree in computer science opined: "I think the most important take-away was to really enjoy the people around us, and not just to be glued to our devices."


Words of wisdom following a commencement address bound to linger long in the memories of those who heard it or read about it.

May we all be inspired to take the governor's advice to heart. But I suppose it's too much to ask that program presenters add a line to their prominently displayed urgings to silence cellphones and other devices: "Viola-
tors may be ejected from the performance at the discretion of the management."

Contact Clarence Fanto at


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