Pianist Krystian Zimerman Halts Concert Over Smartphone: Is it Time for New Rules?

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A growing number of orchestras and concert halls are allowing patrons to take photos and use their smart phones during performances. Some musicians, it seems, really don’t like it. One of them is the Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman, who was performing at the Ruhr Piano Festival in Essen, Germany, where he was said to have spotted an audience member filming his recital from the balcony.

"He noticed someone up in the choir seats filming the concert on their smartphone," a festival spokeswoman told the BBC. "We think it was probably an iPhone." Zimerman then asked the patron to stop, but they didn't. So the pianist stopped the recital and walked off stage.

Zimerman later returned and told the stunned audience that he had lost recording contracts because label executives told him a performance is already on YouTube. "The destruction of music because of YouTube is enormous," Zimerman reportedly said.

Whether fan videos compete with commercial recordings or actually aid in the promotion of musicians' careers is up for debate (many of Zimerman’s performances on YouTube appear to be professional copies and not the product of fans wielding iPhones). But the pianist's protest may be increasingly out of step with shifting public standards. A growing number of venues find that photography and video are not something to be outlawed but embraced, if in a limited manner.

New Audiences, Different Expectations

Some of the most assertive change is coming from America's regional orchestras, who are determining that more media-friendly policies will help them reach fans who already share concert photos on Twitter and Facebook. Last month, the Nashville Symphony began permitting photography in its hall – albeit when the lights are up.

“We had noticed quite a few photos being taken and shared and [we] were trying to figure out if we should re-share some of the really great shots of our hall or to ignore people sharing these photos,” said Nashville Symphony spokesperson Laurie Davis in an e-mail. “It seemed a waste not to be taking advantage of our biggest fans.”

The orchestra recently launched a concert photography contest through its Facebook page.

The Colorado Symphony also said it will be introducing a camera-friendlier policy for its 2013-14 season as a way to encourage social media interaction. And the Cincinnati Symphony has one of the more liberal policies, allowing non-flash photography even during a performance.

At the Detroit Symphony, photography and even videography is fair game. The orchestra's website states: "non-flash photography and video recording by silenced handheld devices are allowed during DSO performances. Feel free to post your favorite photos on our Facebook page!”

DSO spokesman Gabrielle Poshadlo clarified in an e-mail that the orchestra doesn’t allow patrons “to bring in their huge camera equipment or their tripod or anything that will obstruct the view of their fellow audience members.” But, she added, if someone uses "an iPhone or small camera, and does not make any noise while doing so, we will not stop them.”

Poshadlo added that the DSO has received "very few complaints" about audience photography and the biggest fears were internal: that turning patrons into documentarians undermine the orchestra’s own publicity machinery. But the orchestra has found it to be a way of expanding its reach.

Challenges of Viral Success

Drew McManus, an orchestra consultant who writes the blog Adaptistration.com, noted that restrictions on film and photography are not necessarily due to musicians' labor agreements but rather contracts for guest conductors and soloists. Some feel it can hurt their careers when a poor performance suddenly goes viral. “No guest artist who makes their living on stage wants to have a permanent record out there of the occasional bad night,” he said.

At the same time, McManus believes that presenters who ban photography are fighting a losing battle. “Ultimately you have to trust the audience to do the right thing,” he said. “Making sure the ushers are properly trained is also important.”

In an editorial on his Slipped Disc blog, Norman Lebrecht called on concert halls to revise their rules around photography. "Maintaining a categorical ban serves only to deter a younger audience for whom instant communication is an essential of their social lives,” he wrote. “Artists must have the right to refuse, but some – perhaps many – will welcome the change, especially if it lowers the audience age.”

For now, New York’s major concert halls maintain official bans on photography and filming, with no sign of an immediate rule change. A spokesperson for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center wrote in an e-mail on Thursday: “At this time, CMS is not considering relaxing its policy in any of our halls (Tully, Kaplan, and the Rose Studio), and there has not been any discussion about doing so.”

Weigh in: What do you think of audience photography or filming? Leave your comments below:

Photo of Krystian Zimerman: (c) Kasskara and DG