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Classical notes: Dial O for obsession

This month, our columnist manages to stir up a storm about the use of mobile phones in concert halls
June 5, 2024

I think I must sometimes give the impression of a slight obsession with some pieces. I’ve performed Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem 96 times so far, and I’m writing a book about and around it, so that’s one obsession for sure. And some years ago I wrote a book about Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle, with the Robert Burton-aping subtitle Anatomy of an Obsession. It’s a piece I return to again and again: not just in straightforward recitals for voice and piano, but also in a TV film (1997) and two theatre pieces, one of the piano cycle staged at Florence’s Maggio Musicale by the film director Roberto Andò, and one a zany Hans Zender orchestration directed by Netia Jones, which we took from London to California to Shanghai. I spent parts of last month in detailed rehearsals with two old friends and colleagues, Deborah Warner and Julius Drake, staging the unadulterated song cycle again for Bath’s Ustinov Studio. It’s surely a sign of a peerless masterpiece that it can bear so many reinterpretations, and extraordinary that so much dramatic intent and dramatic structure can be drawn out of a set of songs originally written to be sung around the piano at home. We open this June.

You may have noticed a more general obsession with Britten, beyond the War Requiem. I’ve already written here about his song cycle for voice and strings Les Illuminations, with words by the enfant terrible of French poetry, Arthur Rimbaud. A couple of weeks ago I was singing it yet again, with the City of Birmigham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), in the city’s Symphony Hall. This is an orchestra—and, for that matter, a hall—with which I’ve had a long association. I’ll never forget a Spring Symphony (copyright: B Britten) with Simon Rattle on the night of the 1997 election. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, singing a piece about renewal and rejuvenation, and returning home in the car listening to the first results come in. And here I was, back in Birmingham to sing one of my favourite pieces: great orchestra, great conductor (Gergely Madaras), great venue.


The opening of Les Illuminations, with its string fanfares oscillating between two starkly opposing keys, is always thrilling and charges me up for the helter-skelter, expressionist-cum-cabaret spirit of the piece, with its mixture of humour, eroticism, chaos and wartime foreboding (it was finished in October 1939). But as we set out on the second number—“Villes”, with its conjuration of the urban melee which Rimbaud and his lover, Paul Verlaine, experienced in London in the 1870s—I noticed an elderly man, stage right, holding up his mobile phone.

This happens occasionally in concerts. In smaller venues, I’ve been known to strike out into the audience and ask the offender to stop. Other times, I try to glare them out as part of the performance. This time, that wasn’t working; and the opportunity to suck up fuel for the aggression sometimes required by Rimbaud and Britten was overwhelmed by simple distraction. It’s difficult to draw people into a piece that, at its best, takes you and your audience into another world, a world created by sounds and words, when someone is so clearly indicating that they are not really paying attention. I tried to carry on, but the spell had been broken. When another member of the audience on the other side started up with her phone, I paused after the third song and testily asked them to stop. Cue a burst of applause from the audience at large. 

I thought not much more about it after the concert, but the following day a storm started brewing. It turned out that the CBSO had introduced a policy to allow audience members to film during concerts, and my action has been interpreted by some as a “protest” against said policy. The story travelled far and wide. I went on to Radio 4’s Front Row arts magazine to explain why I thought phones in concert halls were a bad idea. Then, a couple of days later, I was on the Today programme and the 8am news. All in all, the commentary continued for at least two weeks, almost all of it, from journalists and practitioners and audience members, supporting my stance. Birmingham now recommends that people save their filming for the applause, a small victory.

Why did such a trivial event provoke so much comment? I can offer all sorts of reasons for my stance on phones in classical concerts, though I don’t really want to go into them again. I could quote Britten’s—yes, him again—Aspen Award lecture in which he talks of the holy triangle between composer, performer and listener and asks for it not to be disrupted. You might find that precious or pretentious. But, in an age in which mobile phones are ubiquitous, and in which so many of us, young and old, are complaining about the way in which they have colonised our brains and come to dominate our lives, surely a space without phones might be a blessed relief.