The artist was reportedly unimpressed at the amount of audience noise during her London comeback this week, writes Charlotte Smith
On Tuesday, legendary violinist Kyung Wha Chung made her return to the London stage following a twelve-year absence - a highly anticipated event, publicised throughout the media, including in The Strad. Though generating largely positive reviews, the recital made the papers the following day for reasons other than Chung’s impassioned performance. Rather it was the violinist’s visible irritation at a coughing audience and her sharp rebuke reportedly directed at the parents of a child - ‘Maybe bring her back when she’s older’ - which has set tongues wagging.
The incident throws up a number of questions. Should musicians feel it is their right to address an audience if bad behaviour is disturbing their performance? Or is it better to take the high road and rise above the mundane? And when does the odd audience cough or sniffle cross into the realm of significant distraction?
Coughing is hardly the same as talking, allowing a mobile phone to ring, or, heaven forbid, heckling. Yet Chung is not the first artist to react in anger to the humble cough: in November 2013 at a Chicago Symphony Orchestra performance, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas threw two handfuls of cough drops into his audience in an attempt to achieve an uninterrupted performance of Mahler‘s Ninth!
No doubt Chung’s reaction speaks of her deep desire to produce a thoughtful and memorable performance, with all the intense artistry for which she is renowned. Yet such a reaction does little to dispel classical music’s association with elitism - a realm of veiled rules and undecipherable hieroglyphs in which the uninitiated may well be censured for anything other than total concentration.
More damaging still is the implication that a concert is not a suitable place for a child - even one who is well-behaved. True, Chung’s sophisticated recital may not have been the ideal environment in which to introduce children to the joys of classical music - and there are many other more appropriate concerts designed specifically for the young. But the wider public, for whom classical music is all too often lumped into a single category, cannot be expected to distinguish between the two.
Nevertheless, whether for good or ill, Chung has certainly drawn attention to the subject of audience behaviour - and proved herself, still, at the age of 66 to be an artist worthy of notice. A classical concert on acoustic instruments cannot, no matter how audience-friendly, cope with the same level of background noise customary in rock and pop shows, where amplified equipment easily cuts through the din.
So should Chung be applauded? The jury is still out.
Kyung Wha Chung is interviewed in The Strad's December 2014 issue, out now.