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Fed up with ringing cell phones, Yannick Nézet-Séguin stops Philadelphia Orchestra music mid-concert — twice

“Can we live without the phone for just one damn hour?” the peeved maestro asked after a second phone interruption.

Philadelphia Orchestra music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin leading the ensemble in Verizon Hall in October 2022.
Philadelphia Orchestra music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin leading the ensemble in Verizon Hall in October 2022.Read morePhiladelphia Orchestra

Cell phone rings interrupted the Philadelphia Orchestra’s music Saturday night, compelling music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin to stop the concert. Twice.

The first disruption happened about a minute into the deeply spiritual third movement of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9. Nézet-Séguin was leading the ensemble in a quiet passage when a cell phone in the audience rang out.

He stopped conducting, paused, and then restarted the movement.

The orchestra was at about the same point in the music when, once again, a cell phone ring seized the atmosphere in Verizon Hall. Nézet-Séguin put his arms down, and this time addressed the audience.

“Can we live without the phone for just one damn hour?” he asked. He went on to point out that the audience had paid money for a certain kind of experience, and that phones could wait.

He started the third movement a third time, and this time no cell phone sounded. The audience was relatively quiet for the rest of the concert, and the talking-to did nothing to dampen affection for him, the other performers, or Bruckner’s alternately thunderous and transcendent music. The evening ended in several curtain calls and hoots and calls of bravo. The conductor blew kisses to the musicians.

Afterward, Nézet-Séguin declined to be interviewed backstage, citing a long day that also included a matinee of La bohème at the Metropolitan Opera and then a return that night to New York for a Sunday concert at Carnegie Hall.

But in a voice memo texted to The Inquirer, the conductor said he “stopped the concert because it was cell phone [ring] number four. Philosophically, I think what’s happening is, we do have a new audience coming in and we appreciate that they are coming in. And we’re trying to welcome them to understand the power of being together in a moment of silence and in a moment of complete focus on the music.”

He said the goal was to help the audience have the best experience possible, which is “not to be distracted by the daily life, which is represented by the cell phone.”

Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 is about anything but worldly concerns. The Austrian composer wrote the work at the end of his life and dedicated it to “the majesty of all the majesties, the beloved God.”

The piece was left unfinished. Saturday night’s interruptions were especially jolting since the program was intended as one epic, continuous (and intermissionless) swath of Bruckner, from his “Christus factus est” to the three completed Symphony No. 9 movements to the Te Deum. Adding considerable firepower to the concert were the Philadelphia Symphonic Choir and vocal soloists Elza van den Heever, Michelle DeYoung, Sean Panikkar and Ryan Speedo Green.

Cell phone interruptions are not uncommon at the orchestra’s concerts despite the fact that each performance begins with an announcement about cell phone etiquette.

“It’s true that my tone may have been a little bit, like, impatient with it,” said Nézet-Séguin. “But as I also said from the stage, it’s not to be upset with them, not to admonish them, but more to — even if I don’t like the word, it’s the truth — educate also the people who come. And you know, guess what, I feel that after that everybody was even more focused, and the rapturous applause said it all after.

“Hopefully we can keep welcoming our new audiences while having them embrace the rituals of the concert.”