Coughing During Concerts and Recordings

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Vladimir Horowitz at Carnegie 1968
Vladimir Horowitz performing at Carnegie Hall, 1968.

Magnificent concert halls offer great acoustic settings to experience live music but can also amplify unwanted noise. There are various tactics you can employ to reproach chatty members of the audience: anything from the subtle glare and the school teacher finger shush, to getting the ushers to do the dirty work, or having a word with the guilty offenders yourself. Speaking of which, I was once offered a job as bouncer at Catalina Bar and Grill after I kicked some noisy patrons out myself. However, coughing, especially loud hacking, is an entirely different matter.

Keith Jarrett
Shh…Keith Jarrett is playing.

I remember an early Keith Jarrett performance at the Walt Disney Concert Hall that took place during its inaugural 2003–’04 season. For those who haven’t attended his concerts, Jarrett demands complete silence, even going so far as to request that his audience refrain from coughing or making any noise until the breaks between songs. But that night, there was a freak hailstorm in LA which caused a fair number of audience members to arrive late. Latecomers could be heard making their way down the steep wooden staircases, with women’s heels clacking away. These were such huge annoyances to Jarrett that he sarcastically remarked that it sounded as if Mickey and Minnie Mouse were prancing about the hall. Even worse, the audio wasn’t yet working properly in the new space, so I’m sure a few heads went rolling after that show.

Coughing on older recordings usually has either smoking or perhaps sickness as its cause.  It is distracting and disconcerting to sit next to a sick person at a concert.  But now….there are cell phones, rings, texts, and all.   One of them went off during a live Deutsche Grammophon recording of Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang playing, annoying the rest of us even more when the person took the call and started talking!

Two years ago, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas made classical headlines and generated a fair amount of online discussion guest conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra when he “put down his baton and left the stage” following the first movement of Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. He reemerged and, in his usual good-natured way, tossed two handfuls of throat lozenges to the audience, encouraging them to pass the cough suppressants onto anyone in need. The audience responded with laughter and applause.

Listen to live solo piano and classical recordings made prior to 1975, and you’ll hear that these were commonly littered with extraneous audience racket. There’s the famous 1968 Vladimir Horowitz concert recorded at Carnegie Hall (see below), where he broke a piano string during the second movement of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op.36. The string was quickly replaced and Horowitz resumed playing, but throughout some of the most delicate passages, there is so much disruptive coughing in the background that I can’t even focus on Horowitz’s playing. Another similarly unfortunate example would be Sviatoslav Richter’s extraordinary 1958 solo performance of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at An Exhibition in Sofia, Bulgaria. For some reason, Russian recordings tend to be the noisiest, cough-wise…maybe because so many of the Russian concertgoers used to smoke unfiltered Sputnik cigarettes.

Horowitz’s 1968 Carnegie Hall concert has never been reissued on CD, probably for the above reasons, so the only listening option is the “snap, crackle, pop” of noisy vinyl, served with a generous side of coughing. Even so, I cannot recommend his Rachmaninov Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 36 highly enough. Alternatively, Russian pianist Olga Kern plays a version of it beautifully. Sviatoslav Richter’s (see below) 1958 Mussorgsky concert by Richter is also amazing.

The great Vladimir Horowitz performs Rachmaninov’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 36 at Carnegie Hall in 1968.

Sviatoslav Richter’s extraordinary 1958 solo performance of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at An Exhibition in Sofia, Bulgaria.

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