Enthusiastic Scientist Roughed Up, Ejected By Patrons During Handel Performance

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A noted American scientist says that he was beaten up by a pair of "audience vigilantes" for expressing too much enthusiasm during a performance last year of Handel's Messiah at the Bristol Proms in England. But he denied reports in the British news media and elsewhere on Monday that he was attempting to crowd-surf during the concert.

David Glowacki, a research fellow at the Royal Society in London, told WQXR that the concert on Aug. 3, 2013 began as part of a larger effort by the festival to introduce a less stuffy atmosphere in the concert hall, and make young people feel more comfortable.

In a pre-concert announcement, patrons were invited to clap when they'd like, talk with friends and have a beer during the performance. Seats were removed from the front of the hall to allow standing, similar to a mosh pit at a rock concert.

The crescendo of the Hallelujah Chorus was the trigger for the alleged incident. "The chorus was singing 'Hallelujah' probably only about two meters away from us," said Glowacki, who was standing up front with two friends. "It was a very intense, emotional experience, far beyond anything I've experienced when I've seen Handel's Messiah previously, where I'm usually very far away."

Glowacki put up his hands, pumped his fists and yelled, 'woo-hoo.'" "And I got punched in the kidneys and knocked to the floor by an audience member," he said. "He said, 'you get the hell out of here you stupid [expletive].'"

Glowacki, it happens, wasn't just a regular ticket-holder but a special guest of the festival. The night before, he had given an interactive physics demonstration with the violinist Nicola Benedetti involving a sophisticated camera system that interprets energy fields.

The annoyed audience member was joined by a friend; both were described by Glowacki as men in their 50s. "I said to him, 'listen, I'm not going anywhere," Glowacki said, citing festival director Tom Morris's invitation for audience expression. "So if you want me out of here you have to physically, forcibly eject me.' So they slapped me around a few times. I hit my head on the stage when I fell down. And they dragged me out."

Glowacki says that other patrons thought the altercation was part of the performance, and cheered when they saw him in the lobby after the concert. But the scientist said he developed a "big bruise" on his forehead from smacking it on the stage. "I couldn't move the next day," he said, adding, "I probably would have swung back at them but my British citizenship application was being processed at that time."

A Bristol Proms spokesman said that Morris is currently on vacation and unavailable to comment.

Glowacki (above), who is jointly based at Stanford University and the University of Bristol in England, says he finds humor in the incident – including the fact that news media are only now picking up the story, with its conflicting versions (it was first reported last August on the Bristol Culture website). "The beautiful thing is just the imagery of this guy trying to crowd surf during a classical music concert," he said, adding that it probably started with an offhand remark he made to the audience during his physics demonstration.

The event also raises questions of crowd dynamics, and about who enforces public decorum. Glowacki, who received his master's degree in cultural theory, cites theories by French philosopher Michel Foucault on decentralized power structures in society.

"Everything I had done was completely permissible" based on the pre-concert announcement, Glowacki said. "However, that's not really where the power came from. The power came from the audience who, for whatever reason, wanted the experience to conform to whatever their expectation of it was. It didn't matter if the theater director got up and did something to the contrary. I think it's a fascinating experience and there are all kinds of open questions."

Weigh in: What do you think of efforts to bring more informality to the concert hall? Leave your comments below.