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Saint-Sans’ Music Dazzles at MSO

Plus: De Waart finds unusual remedy for coughing

Jun. 1, 2010
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Last Friday at Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, maestro Edo de Waart reached the limit of his audience coughing tolerance. Between movements of Saint-Sans’ Symphony No. 3, de Waart startled all by making an impromptu plea of silence to the coughers. Though there was little quiet music after this highly unusual speech, I heard no coughing for the rest of the concert. Aha! Maybe the MSO should build a “no coughing” message into the standard pre-concert announcements about turning off cell phones?

Audience coughing is the dreaded sound graffiti of the classical concert hall. In a packed cinema, or a crowded church, or during the performance of a play, audience coughing is not a factor. Yet somehow, in the studied quiet of a classical concert, human beings have the urge to cough. Is it uncontrollable? I doubt it.

I do not believe it is purely a matter of health. My theory is that some people cough as a nervous psychological/physical reaction, a type of adult fidgeting. Going out on a limb, a subconscious inner process might be: You ask me to sit in silence, but I can’t handle that pressure: Cough! Or: You want me to make this all about you up on stage, but to register my discomfort at not being the center of any attention: Cough!

Audience coughing is psychologically contagious. Nearly every time one person begins coughing, others join in. Audience coughing does not happen in all halls, which reinforces the thought that it is a controllable phenomenon after all. In those halls where the audience is enveloped by space and light as part of the performance, coughing is minimal. But in the vast, anonymous dark of a theater like Uihlein Hall, audience members obviously feel their coughs could not possibly matter. They are wrong. Everyone hears every cough as invasive percussion. And no one is more aware of it than those onstage.

This all-Saint-Sans program featured terrific performances of Danse macabre and the aforementioned “Organ Symphony.” Simon Trpceski was the dazzling piano soloist in the Concerto No. 2. But de Waart’s coughing speech will be the lasting memory.


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