It wasn’t as severe as the night five years ago when conductor Michael Tilson Thomas lobbed handfuls of cough drops into an audience at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to get his point across.
But Riccardo Muti went above and beyond his normal over-the-shoulder glare and fully brought to a halt a CSO performance Saturday night after someone in the audience coughed.
The orchestra’s 76-year-old Italian music director brought his hands down, signaling the orchestra to stop, during a pianissimo — when the musicians are playing especially softly.
Muti briefly castigated the audience. His exact words — including the use of profanity — were, given his heavy Italian accent, disputed over social media by those in attendance.
“This type of situation does not happen often,” CSO spokeswoman Eileen Chambers said. “However, if there is a significant disruption during the performance, a conductor may choose to stop the performance, allowing the musicians and the audience to regain focus.”
Lawrence A. Johnson, who writes for Chicago Classical Review, said Muti’s action was justified.
“They work for hours and hours in rehearsals to get everything as perfect as can be and then some idiot coughs and just obliterates it,” Johnson said by phone Monday.
“If people are coughing loudly at the quietest moments, it totally breaks the spell and takes you out of the music.”
To combat the coughing, the CSO has for years placed bins of free cough drops on every level of the Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan, where the orchestra performs.
It’s normal for people to stifle coughs during a performance and — when the music stops — for fits of coughing to break out.
“It’s like a mass bronchitis outbreak,” Johnson said. “But if they can hold their coughs until the end of the movement, why can’t they hold it while the music is going on?”
It was the second-to-last show of the CSO’s season — the last show was Sunday — and perhaps the Muti’s frustration had been building.
“Audiences seem to be getting ruder,” Johnson said.
It probably didn’t help that the music he was conducting, written in the 18th century by fellow Italian Luigi Cherubini, “was very close to his heart,” Johnson said.