Four — Yes, Four — Phones Went Off During Philadelphia Orchestra Opening Night with Yo-Yo Ma

"It's disturbing," one longtime orchestra player told Philly Mag. "But it's also the world we live in."

yo-yo ma and yannick nezet-seguin performing with the philadelphia and some noisy cell phones at the kimmel center

Yo-Yo Ma, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, members of the Philadelphia Orchestra (and some noisy cell phones) performing at the Kimmel Center on Tuesday, October 5th (photo by Jeff Fusco for the Philadelphia Orchestra)

Tuesday was a big day at the Kimmel Center. The seasonably mild evening marked opening night for the Philadelphia Orchestra and, more importantly, the first in-person Philadelphia Orchestra performance at the Kimmel Center since COVID began. Philadelphia’s suited and booted and gowned and coiffed were there, rising to their feet for at least five extended and well-deserved standing ovations. Yannick Nézet-Séguin was there, baton in hand. Famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma was there. And then there were the cell phones. The damn cell phones.

It wasn’t long after Yo-Yo Ma took the stage to perform, solo, an emotional movement from a Bach cello suite — a pleasant surprise for the audience, since that song wasn’t listed in the program — that the first cell phone went off. It was Apple’s standard ringtone, the one that’s listed as “Opening (Default)” on your iPhone’s list of ringtone options. The ring felt like it went on forever but was, in reality, silenced within a few seconds. Audience members visibly squirmed in their seats at the distracting infraction, a real philharmonic faux pas.

But it didn’t end there. You’d think that those who heard the phone ringing would have, at that point, taken a quick second to check their own phones, but that clearly wasn’t the case, as became plain once the second phone went off. Mercifully, this was just the one-off ding, The Chime, perhaps signaling a text or a Venmo payment. Who knows? Who cares? But in that acoustically enhanced room, and at another quiet moment during a different song, it sounded like an angry, drunk, impatient hotel guest slamming a hand onto one of those service bells you never see at hotel desks anymore.

Surely, that would be it, right? Because now that two phones had rudely interrupted the long-awaited show, any decent person would check that ringer switch or, you know, just power off the phone. But no. During yet another quiet moment, somebody’s phone made an unidentifiable noise that sounded like some 1960s sci-fi computer sound effect, as if the spaceship just got an incoming message from headquarters, likely reading, “TURN YOUR FUCKING PHONE OFF!”

The final song of the evening, Ravel’s Bolero, described by some as a “15-minute orgasm,” is well known to build from virtually nothing to a dramatic and loud, well, climax. Alas, the fourth cell phone couldn’t wait until that part of the song. No. That phone, which produced the “Circuit” ringtone, chose to do so in the opening moments, during the gentle, subdued and oh-so-quiet foreplay. But, hey, at least it wasn’t “By the Seaside,” am I right?

I actually picked out the final offender,  who was just a few seats in front of me; I could see the person fumbling with the phone to stop the ring. And I had this imaginary conversation in my head where I asked what happened and was told: “I forgot.” Really, what other excuse could there be for not at least silencing your cell phone? That’s why they vibrate. As an attendee, you have but one responsibility: to be quiet. That’s literally all you have to remember while you sit there. Be quiet. Don’t talk. Don’t unwrap frigging candy. And, last but not least, don’t let your cell phone ring.

Obviously, I have some feelings about this. But I’m just an audience member, a mere appreciator of music. How must it feel to the musicians onstage when a cell phone chimes, rings, or otherwise sounds off at the worst possible moment? I reached two longtime Philadelphia Orchestra members who agreed to speak about it on the condition of anonymity.

“It’s disturbing,” one told me on Wednesday morning as she prepared for Wednesday night’s Philadelphia Orchestra performance at Carnegie Hall. “When you’re performing and doing something so serious and solemn and quiet, that moment between the audience and musicians is so sacred. And then a phone goes off. But it’s also the world we live in.”

She recalled the story about a cell phone going off during a New York Philharmonic performance. In that case, it was the “Marimba” ringtone, a true classic. Conductor Alan Gilbert did the unthinkable: He stopped the song. That never happens. Audience members yelled at the doer, who was positively humiliated. Shamed. He later told the New York Times he couldn’t sleep for two nights.

The Philadelphia Orchestra member who recounted that story told me she felt Gilbert had gone too far. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, she says, has dealt with the problem in a different, more artistic way.

“A phone will go off in a quiet moment, and Yannick will make a fermata,” she says, referring to the musical term for the prolongation of a given note or chord. “So we all hold it until the ringing stops. And then we keep going.”

She went on to explain that any orchestra member whose cell phone goes off during rehearsal — pretty much a capital offense in the orchestra world — has to buy doughnuts for the entire orchestra the next day.

“So we do our best to avoid that,” she says, and laughs. “You’re talking about 100 doughnuts. And people will give you specific requests for what type of doughnuts they want.”

Why doesn’t the Kimmel Center simply confiscate cell phones in the lobby before each performance and have patrons retrieve them afterward? It’s not like you’re allowed to record during the show anyway. And that’s what performers like Barbra Streisand and many big-time stand-up comedians demand.

A Philadelphia Orchestra spokesperson told me on Wednesday afternoon that the organization has discussed such a policy but has “no plans to implement it as of yet.”

The first orchestra member I spoke with had a different idea.

“At the Kimmel Center, they make one ‘Please silence your cell phone’ announcement at the beginning of the show,” she notes. “But I don’t think that’s enough. At Carnegie Hall, they literally project that message in giant letters in the concert hall before the show, and it remains on the wall until the show starts. It’s hard to miss.”

The other orchestra player I talked to had a more novel approach.

“Cell-phone-jamming technology,” he half-joked. “Listen, this has been going on for decades now. So, so long. You kind of have to have a sense of humor about it, I guess.”