On the Scourge of Cell Phones at Live Performances

This is why we can't have nice things.

cell phones

/ Photo-illustration by Leticia R.Albano / Photograph via Getty Images

Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Rachmaninoff wouldn’t have had a clue when they wrote their respective Cello Concerto No. 1 and Symphonic Dances in the mid-20th century that a handheld device with an illuminated screen would brazenly interrupt live performances of their magnificent compositions in 2023, some 60-plus years later, with piercing chirps, bleeps, and a thing dubbed long after their deaths a “ringtone.”

Yet when the Philadelphia Orchestra takes the stage for the first time this season at the Kimmel Center on September 28th with Yo-Yo Ma in tow, I’ll bet you a Gritty-autographed bust of Tchaikovsky that at least one cell phone — but more likely a few — will go off at the worst possible moment. History tells us so.

I was at the Kimmel Center on Tuesday, October 5, 2021, for the orchestra’s season-opening night. This wasn’t just any season opener. This was the orchestra’s first in-person opener since COVID had robbed us of such experiences in March of the previous year. Yo-Yo Ma was at that performance, too, as was a capacity crowd wearing their finest N95s. Moments after Ma began to perform, solo, an emotional moment from a Bach cello suite, it happened: Apple’s standard ringtone, over and over again.

The audience visibly squirmed as the dastardly doer eventually fumbled around and got the thing to stop.

Now, you’d think that after such an abomination, and given that a pre-show announcement begged the audience to silence all phones, those with phones would have checked to make sure they weren’t next in line. Alas, no. The cell phones rang and chimed forth on another­ three occasions before the night’s performance would end.

Unfortunately, this happens all the time. Orchestra conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin has been known to pause a performance until the sound ceases — or even stop and take it once more from the beginning. Last March, as the orchestra’s season at the Kimmel wound down, the typically hyper-composed maestro stopped a song during the second cell-phone incident of the evening, turned to the audience, and implored, “Can we live without the phone for just one damn hour?!”

“It’s disturbing,” one Philadelphia Orchestra member, who asked to remain nameless, told me after the 2021 episode. “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 the world we live in.”

A spokesperson for the orchestra tells me the Kimmel Center is exploring solutions not just for the orchestra performances in Verizon Hall, but for all performances across its entire campus, including the Broadway shows that play at the Academy of Music and the Miller Theater, such as this month’s Lion King and November’s Wicked, and at dance performances like those of Philadanco in December. “It’s a problem everywhere,” she insists.

I say public shaming is the way to go: Book Patti LuPone for a weeklong run. The Broadway legend has not just yelled at and humiliated offending audience members from the stage — she’s gone so far as to walk out and grab their cell phones away in the middle of a show.

Alas, while that would be fun, it probably wouldn’t solve the problem. Pre-show confiscation, which has plenty of precedence, is likely the only way to go. As they say, this is why we can’t have nice things.

Published as “The Sounds of Non-Silence” in the September 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.