Pierre-Laurent Aimard on Coughs, Ringtones and Wrappers

Monday, April 23, 2012 - 05:50 PM

Hot tip for concert-goers who buy tickets to a Pierre-Laurent Aimard recital: pack that extra cough drop.

On Monday, the French pianist spoke with WQXR’s Jeff Spurgeon about his thoughtful if sometimes aggressively brainy concert programs that juxtapose pieces from different styles and eras. The subject turned to audiences, and the familiar distractions a performer endures.

"Cell phones or coughs are terrible,” said the pianist in a burst of candor. "In some cases the coughs are not controlled because it's just laziness or sometimes a bit of arrogance maybe."

He said that New York audiences are a mixed bag, but when their coughs are not muffled, "it’s acoustically very loud, it has nothing to do with the music and disturbs enormously."

Aimard added that sometimes he'll politely remind an audience to exercise restraint. "Other times, if you play in a country where making phone calls during the concert is something a little more normal, then you would disturb more the listeners [by stopping] than if you go on."

Judging by reviews, Aimard has had some bad luck in New York. In 2007, a performance with the New York Philharmonic was momentarily disrupted by uninhibited coughs, candy wrappers and a ringtone, causing Aimard to pause for several long moments between movements of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3. Two years later, an Alice Tully Hall recital appeared to be an even more unruly, with ringtones and several bouts of loud hacking that apparently caused him to lose his place in the score. 

Spurgeon asked Aimard whether he ever felt there were times when an audience was frustrated and uncomprehending of what he was trying to say — alluding to one San Francisco reviewer who questioned a challenging program that juxtaposed Kurtág, Schumann and Liszt.

“They are not cerebral programs," Aimard asserted, saying that every program idea starts on a gut, emotional level. "If you include the cerebral element in a program with composers who thought of what they were doing, then you are accused of being an intellectual. Well, yes, I also think about what I do, of course, but they are not cerebral programs. I’ve thought about the programs. I’ve worked on them, I’ve formed them, I try to find a dramaturgy and then I try to help the audience to share that with me and why these pieces work together.”

What do you think of Aimard's comments on audience etiquette? Listen to the interview above and please share your thoughts:

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Comments [10]

Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

"THE PERFORMANCE WAS NOTHING TO SNEEZE AT" is a comment about many overrated productions on Broadway, at the opera, at classical and rock concerts, at TV presentations, at night club acts. I personally have been at so many of these venues that performers dreaded and audiences felt discomforted. Whatever one may claim is the reason for such coughing or sneezing or wheezing, one must admit that currently we are experiencing one ofd the worst allergy seasons. People who have never known of a personal allergy are suddenly experiencing a real outbreak of these allergies. I am a Wagnerian heldentenor, opera composer: "Shakespeare" & "The Political Shakespeare" & the director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, where professional actors are trained for the Shakespeare roles and big-voiced singers are coached in the Wagner roles and voice production and dramaturgy techniques. I may be reached by phone at the Institute. My next concert in New York will be on Saturday, June 9th at the YOGA EXPO at the SOHO venue at the New Yorker Hotel. The title of the concert is BRING HIM HOME, with that song from the musical LES MISERABLES, encouraging the return of our armed forces and inspiring hope and love of country with This Land is Your Land, The House I Live In, You'll Never Walk Alone, Climb Ev'ry Mountain, Billy Bigelow's Soliloquy from Carousel, Granada, The House I Live In, Wien, Wien, nur du Allein, The Impossible Dream [The Quest], Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, Do You Hear the People Sing?, When Johnny Comes Marching Home, Kumbaya, Earth Anthem and eight other selections.

May. 20 2012 03:03 PM
Daniel Pincus from Manhattan, NY

About the odious practice of unwrapping candy during concerts: Someone - Peter Schickele? - should write a piece for ensemble with obbligato audience unwrapping candy. Each ticket holder is handed a piece of wrapped candy and given instructions, by section, about when to unwrap it during the piece. Likewise for cell phones: either a piece for musician and audience cell phone choir or an announced "Turn off your cell phones at our signal so that it is done euphoniously. Or, candy unwrappers are ejected from the theater, end of story. Not so with cell phoners; that can be just forgetfulness.

May. 06 2012 08:51 PM
Phyllis Sharpe

This was maybe 40 years ago at a matinee program of the Vienna Boys Choir. We were there with all 4 children, the youngest in kindergarten who fell asleep and began to snore so loudly that people several rows around us were shushing. He was oblivious but the rest of us were embarrassed.

May. 01 2012 08:51 PM
Mike Williams from Sydney, Australia

I attended a concert of Lazar Berman at the Sydney Opera House where the majority of the audience seemed to be in coughing death throes. I thought at one point that someone in the front rows had actually hit the pianist with something from the back of his throat.

I was sitting in the choir-stalls behind the concert platform, and the smaller group there were much quieter. At the end of the concert, Mr Berman acknowledged us by turning his stool and playing all his encores to us!

Apr. 30 2012 08:30 AM
Michael Meltzer

I agree, but even if I didn't, when a musician is that good, you give them what they want or you might lose them. For the NY concertgoing public to lose Mr. Aimard would be nothing less than tragic. I think the years will show him to be one of the best of this century.

Apr. 29 2012 01:49 AM
Lauren Hahn from Chicago

I totally agree with Mr. Aimard--it's rude and arrogant to cough loudly and sneeze resoundingly at a concert. If you're sick, stay home.

I can tell you a funny story about coughing at Lyric Opera in Chicago. This was about 5 years ago and I was attending a matinee performance of Der Rosenkavalier. Fairly early on in Act One, a woman about 10 seats away from me, and sitting in an aisle seat, began coughing loudly and incessantly. After about 5 minutes, a group of audience members in the balcony stood up and surrounded the woman and said, "You must leave! Now!" She got and left the theater! It was a great Lyric Opera moment.

Years ago (late 1970's)in Ann Arbor MI, I heard Horowitz play the second Chopin sonata, and some idiot sitting very close to the stage on the main floor of Hill Aud. began coughing loudly throughout the second movement. After finishing the movement, Horowitz stopped the performance for a minute or two and gave the guy a look that could etch glass. The coughing idiot stopped coughing!

Apr. 24 2012 05:15 PM
David from Flushing

I recall reading a 19th century article about people talking during performances at the Met Opera. The opinion was expressed that one could not possibly ask box holders to be quiet as it was their right to talk.

I also saw a cartoon with a "solution"---a glass enclosed opera box that allowed the occupants to be seen, but not heard.

Apr. 24 2012 03:53 PM
Michael Novia from New Canaan, CT


I've always been intrigued by the pyschological import of disruptions. From sneezing, coughing, clearing the throat, kicking or grasping the back of seats, to the shuffling of the feet, talking or walking in late. Never mind the opening of wrappers!! Although many excuse away the inherent intent of disruptions, I think (from much study and experience) that they are "hysterical" quirks at best and intentional, malicious rejections of the the Arts at worst. I tend to believe the latter far more than the former, but what does it matter really? I must say that the words of du Maurier's Svegali come to mind: "Pig Dog Monkey." Is it better to not think this, to not perseverate on the disruptions, and to miss the beauty of the music... or to know very well that these disruptions are purposeful and really know the sublimity of the music? Are the two mutually exclusive? My grown daughters think I'm wrapped too tight!!

Apr. 24 2012 12:06 PM
George Damasevitz from New York

If someone were to write a "Coughing Concerto", would it be rude to be silent?

Apr. 24 2012 11:01 AM
Bernie from UWS

Bravo, maestro. I often wonder about people who seem to have no regard for others around them when they don't even try to muffle their coughs. Are they that clueless? Or just arrogant as Mr. Aimard says? And with the cough drop wrapper, don't unwrap is slowly thinking it will disturb less. Do it in one single gesture and get it over with. Or better yet, wait till the piece is over!

Apr. 24 2012 08:20 AM

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