Why Coughing Brought Down The Curtain on Our NSO Years

(Photos By James Steidl/istockphoto And Scott Suchman)
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Sunday, June 29, 2008

I have been a subscriber to the National Symphony Orchestra for more than 10 years, and I've been going to many other performances at the Kennedy Center ever since coming to Washington 44 years ago. But I am not going to renew our NSO subscription this year.

· No, it's not because the Music Center at Strathmore is more convenient by car and Metro.

· No, it's not because parking at the Kennedy Center costs $17.

· And no, it's not because the acoustics at the Kennedy Center are sub-par.

It's because of coughing.

Yes, coughing has become so pervasive at Kennedy Center performances that one wonders why people should even go out to listen to live music or theater.

It was so bad during the exquisitely soft and delicate final movement of Mahler's Third Symphony during an October 2007 concert that I wrote a letter of complaint to the NSO. I was not alone in voicing that concern: NSO music director Leonard Slatkin was so upset by the coughing that evening that he commented on it during the performance. And the next day, Post critic Tim Page wrote about it in his review: "Alas, many in the audience coughed through much of the last movement last night."

In my first letter I suggested that the NSO and the Kennedy Center do some research into the cause of this excessive, disruptive, mood-breaking hacking. How have other concert halls dealt with this problem? Do they issue edicts? Do they make cough drops available in the lobby? In my experience there has been little coughing at concerts of the Emerson Quartet in Baird Hall in the Smithsonian Institution and at concerts in the Library of Congress. During a recent trip to Europe, I heard little if any coughing during symphonic concerts in the gilded, glittering concert halls of Prague, Vienna and Budapest.

Are Hungarians immune to the sniffles? Do Austrians rarely have sinus problems? Do Czechs check their coughs at the cloakroom? Hardly. It must be that those audiences are aware of the disrupting, incommoding effect of coughing on the tranquil mood created by the pianissimo passages of a composition. The managers of concert halls and theaters have been inveighing for some time against the electronic and mechanical noisemakers of our age, including pagers, alarm watches and the most recent curse, cellphones. Why hasn't the Kennedy Center urged its patrons to silence the natural noisemakers all concertgoers carry to every concert: their larynxes?

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