ViolaGate! Mini-riot erupts during piece for viola and electronics

Well, perhaps not rioting, but there was some pretty spirited heckling during JHNO’s performance at last night’s Longer Burning concert at The Royce Gallery presented by Pamela Z. Details are sketchy, but apparently in the middle of a rather loudly amplified piece, two audience members started complaining about the music even more loudly. One started applauding ironically in an effort to get him to stop playing, the other was less subtle and just yelled out “stop”. One audience member in attendance claims that the hecklers went as far to shout “This is a DESECRATION! I am a REAL violist and I can tell you THIS IS NOT MUSIC!”

Apparently this very vocal and persistent minority got under JHNO’s skin and he abruptly stopped playing, threw his viola onto the stage, causing considerable damage, and stormed off. After the outburst, an angry group of audience members (including original Kronos Quartet member Joan Jeanrenaud) amassed around the hecklers, arguing about proper decorum. Apparently one of the hecklers is a well known performer and educator, but no one has named names yet. (update: George Mattingly has identified the heckler as none other than Bernard Zaslav, former violist of the relatively forward thinking Fine Arts Quartet!)

From the accounts I’ve heard, it was a shocking and disturbing occurrence for everyone there. We mythologize stories of extreme audience reaction to the new, (the famous ‘riots’ after Sacre, the woman screaming ‘I Confess!” during Reich’s Four Organs) but with the general sanitization of the concert experience, actual displays of emotion are exceedingly rare (outside the opera house at least).

(ed. Please see the comments for responses from the heckler, hecklee, and concert presenter.)



Jun 2011

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  1. George Mattingly #

    This wasn’t “heckling,” it was a determined attempt to put an end to the performance. The elderly couple (who did succeed in ending the performance, when JHNO threw his viola to the floor smashing it to bits) evidently had at least three problems: 1) malfunctioning hearing aids inadequate to the task of handling electronic music, 2) a total intolerance for electronic music, and 3) inoperative social governors.

    Contrary to what one might expect, the man who began derisively applauding, yelling “bravo,” and “I’m a real violist and this isn’t music” wasn’t a blue-haired middle-brow “philistine” with no appreciation of music, but rather a former violist in The Fine Arts Quartet, Bernard Zaslav ( ), formerly at least a champion of contemporary music. Evidently his musical universe doesn’t include electronics, and his social governor is no longer operative. There was no “riot,” and to be fair, Joan Jeanrenaud engaged Mr. Zaslav in a very civil conversation, asking him if he would have been among those who shouted down performances of Stravinsky. (To which Mr. Zaslav responded “But that was real music!”).

    I think it’s inaccurate to say that the concert experience has been “sanitized.” Rather, I think what has happened is that “serious” music has branched into multiple parallel audiences which until recently have mingled very little. The “new music” audience ventures seldom into the symphony hall, and the symphony’s blue-haired board programs almost no “new” music, so the occasion for disagreement is minimized.

    This has now changed (again), and, ironically, Bernard Zaslav’s Fine Arts Quartet began the process of bringing back into the same fold the different flavors of “serious” music. While I’m sure that original group couldn’t have predicted it, their inclusive programming has evolved to concerts with programming like that of Pamela Z’s LONGER BURNING.

    BTW the volume level of JHNO’s amplified viola was nowhere near the level of a typical rock concert, and no louder than most jazz club performances. Furthermore, it was entirely tonal, and in no way truly “outside.” If Mr. Zaslav wants to experience REALLY outside music, there are concerts every week in the Bay Area which would set his hair on fire.

    This wasn’t one of them.

    • Brian Rosen #

      Thanks so much for the on the scene update, George. I was surprised to hear that the audience let the heckling continue for so long, but I imagine that people were likely shocked into submission. I wonder if Zaslav will issue an apology. It would certainly be a start.

  2. 3

    I was invited to perform at this concert specifically as a ‘subversive element’ to the genre of solo viola performance. I am an experimental musician. The piece I developed for this concert involves the use of long drone notes, delays, and feedback through the instrument. It requires a certain level of volume in order to work at all. I carefully checked the sound level, pointed the amplifier at the ceiling, and listened carefully from the seats while sound checking. I am very sensitive to loud volume levels myself and so I feel I set them conservatively.

    Mr. Zaslav’s interruptions began in the first few minutes of the piece and continued relentlessly. It became impossible to continue. I was overly sensitive to his abuse because this was my debut as a solo performer, and I had just driven from southern California at my own expense in order to play the concert. Of course, I regret my over-reaction, in that I caused expensive damage to my instrument, which I must now repair. You live and learn!

    The piece was about the relationship between the natural world and technology, about the breaking through of consciousness and feeling through the shell of the predictable and the mundane. I am grateful to the members of the audience who told me how much they liked it; I really needed the encouragement at that moment.

    For anyone who is interested, Carla Bozulich and I are opening for Zoe Keating at the Great American Music Hall on June 25 and 26.


    • Brian Rosen #


      Thanks for taking the time to add your side of things. Quite a traumatic way to make a solo debut.

      Best of luck on the June concerts. Sounds like Magik*Magik is playing as well. That’s going to be a great show.

  3. 5

    I still feel terrible about what happened to JHNO and I feel a certain sense of inadequacy because I feel responsible for not being able to control what happened in an event I produced and protect the artist. My sometimes studio assistant took the initiative to ask Mr. Zaslav to leave and he refused. I then asked him to leave, but he wouldn’t budge. I went after JHNO to follow him and see that he was OK, while his friends took the initiative of fading out his patch and collecting his equipment from the stage. When I returned to the room and announced the premature intermission, the entire audience (minus Zaslav and his wife) erupted in an incredibly enthusiastic and long applause for JHNO and many made spontaneous shout-outs in solidarity with him. And I honestly believe that this audience response was not merely sympathy. JHNO’s music was nothing short of beautiful. He was carefully sculpting very sonically complex layers of sound and making use of textures and colors that would not be found in anyone else’s work that night. He was “extending the instrument” brilliantly. And the audience was made up of a lot of people with discerning enough ears to realize that.

    It was the most bizarre combination of disturbing and heartwarming to be in the room that night. I don’t know Mr. Zaslav at all, so I can’t account for his mental or emotional condition, but his behavior that evening was the most childish I’ve ever witnessed from an adult at a new music event. I’ve produced this series for five years, and I’ve been on the steering committee of the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival since it’s start in 2000, so I’ve seen my share of the occasional unhappy audient. In my experience, when people dislike a concert intensely, they walk out. That’s fine. In my book, you suffer through politely until a break, or if you must, you walk out as discretely as possible (hopefully not in a huff as if trying to draw attention to your disapproval). But to remain in the room acting out and trying to bring the concert to a halt is clearly the act of an extremely childish, selfish, and self-inflated person.

    My aim with the ROOM Series reflects my long-held desire to blur the boundaries between the various facets of the contemporary music scene. When I did radio, I used to love juxtaposing varied music within one program, and I like to do the same in my live events. I like it when audience members tell me that they came to hear “so-n-so’ but they were surprised to also be exposed to someone they’d not heard before. But, for the kinds of audiences I’m accustomed to, the programming was not in the least radical. I think this incident was the result of a combination of one person’s lack of musical openness, and that same person’s lack of social decency.

    I never expected this level of controversy to be generated by my little avant-chamber series. It’s hard not to be a almost titillated by it all, but it also left me with a kind of queasiness that I don’t hope to experience again. Still, many who were in attendance left with a high level of energy that seemed to reflect admiration of the artistry displayed by all of the artists in the concert and a strong sense of community.

  4. 6

    Youch! Damage to a precious viola is a terrible outcome. I met Bernie during my brief stint at Stanford, where he was kind to my not-yet-blossomed musical efforts. So I am embarrassed for everybody involved in this brouhaha, including him, and hope we can all take something positive from the experience.

    Back in my years at Oberlin, James Hepokowski used to seem most alive in his music history lectures when he described riots at Rite of Spring and Afternoon of a Faun. I think the unruly behaviors and partisan polemics of these events remind us that we can have very strong feelings about music, about decorum or the lack of it, about musical technology even. It has been a while since an art music audience has acted so strongly on their feelings. Perhaps this indicates a loss of a civility which we’ve struggled to develop and maintain since 1913, but perhaps it also indicates a reconnection with the strength of our feelings.

  5. 7

    At the risk of adding fuel to the fire…

    I am a real violist, and I’ve just become a JHNO fan. Rock on, my man!

    And Pamela — Kudos to you for all that you do to keep music LIVING!

  6. 8

    Among worse things, I have been accused of being uncivil and having “inoperative social governors,” so I feel I do owe an explanation for my reaction to the intolerable pain I endured at this concert. I also owe an apology to JHNO for my inability to tolerate the level of decibels his work entails, since I seem to have been in the minority. I repeat; my actions were caused not by anything but the need to STOP THE PAIN in my ears and there was no escape.

    When JNHO began his work and then increased the volume gradually to earsplitting, unremitting decibel overload (please note that our artist was standing BEHIND the speakers and that they were directed at us) I was literally trapped, sitting in the front row of a small, crowded and darkened theater, and after perhaps 5 or 6 minutes of this agony, and needing my cane to depart the scene, I was obliged do the only thing I could think of to stop the excruciating pain to my ears, which was to applaud and even venture a few “boos” as well. With everyone shushing me, the artist fled the scene, apparently throwing down the viola he was holding, which I never actually saw him play. I am always sorry to see any musical instrument being broken, but the source of this agony was NOT a musical instrument; it was the hugely over-amplified electronic bombs that were being emitted by a MACHINE within a dark, confined space. An engineer came up to me later, showed me a pair of earplugs, and said that the amount of decibels that were emitted in that space would be considered illegal in any factory setting in this country.

    My pain was such that, lierally being unable to flee the scene, I had to find surcease. Having had a recent fall with attendant vertigo and balance loss, hemmed in in the dark, and afraid to use my cane, I did the only thing I could do to stop the pain.There was lots of invective hurled at me, but things settled down in the intermission and I discussed this rationally with several audience members, some (but not many) of whom agreed that we were being subjected to intolerable noise levels. Decorum is certainly necessary in a public space, but so is the rational level of amplification by an artist. Many young (and older) folks have suffered hearing loss because of this thoughtless (or perhaps planned) over-amplification, as has been well documented, and by my own audiologist as well. They may be your ears,but you’ll miss them when you get older and wish you’d been wiser. In this case, “suffering politely” was simply not an option; I would invite anyone to try sitting in my seat before those speakers and deny this.

    You may believe, if you wish, that I am, a) a nutty crank, or, b) that my “musical universe doesn’t include electronics,” which is what has been said in one blog. The concert, entitled “Longer Burning” (I get it and am not necessarily amused) benefitted from some fine viola playing by Charlton Lee of SFO’s fine Cypress Quartet, and from Hank Dutt (my close friend), the excellent violist of Kronos. The electronic works presented were between okay and excellent, IMHO, and were very well played. Hank played a raga with electronic drone background, a solo variant of a Bach courante by Nils Butmann, and a work called “Waiting” with tape loop written by Kronos’s famed ex-cellist Joan Jeanrenaud.

    Elderly – yep, and glad of it (as you will be when you reach my age of 85)! “ViolaGate?” “Mini-riot erupts?” Nah, not so much. FYI, I do love, and have long been, a champion of electronic music, starting in New York with Varese and Milton Babbitt and now those many others who employ it with art and design. As for new music, Elliott Carter dedicated his 4th String Quartet to the Composers Quartet of which I was a founding member, and the Fine Arts Quartet commissioned works of Babbitt, Wuorinen, Johnston, and many others during the 12 years I was a member.
    Nevertheless, I am accused of being behind the times. I will remind you that there is a pendulum to time (Wuorinen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning”Time’s Encomium”, and some of the things thought to be revolutionary have been done before, and probably will, again. I embrace technology, which is why an 85-year-old violist is responding here, but the human condition must be respected, as well as the artifacts that are used to grace our minds. As the population ages (yes, YOU) so must the technology embrace that.

    Since low vision has put an end to my performing career (one knows when to stop), I have just completed my memoir, “The Viola in My Life: An Alto Rhapsody”. It will contain 2 CDs of my recordings with the Zaslav Duo and the various quartets of which I was a member. Among the works, I have included quartets by Ruth Crawford, Ben Johnston’s microtonal “Amazing Grace,” and a 12-tone duo called “Set for Two.” The memoir should be available from Science and Behavior Books (and on Amazon) by September, for those who may be interested in what the New York music scene of the 1950s was like. And yes, it was written by a geezer who loved ALL music.

    Bernie Zaslav

    • Brian Rosen #

      Brief editorial correction to Bernie’s response: Charlton Lee plays with the Del Sol Quartet. Ethan Filner is the violist with the Cypress String Quartet.

      Not having been at the original confrontation, I am ill prepared to resolve the discrepancies between the various retellings. But I am happy to host the discussion.

    • Astrid farrar #

      I’ll buy your memoir, Bernie. And who knows? This little episode (reading everyone’s version made me laugh til I cried) might go down in music history books. My hair isn’t blue yet, but I prefer the classics myself….

      • 11

        So this was all a publicity stunt for your new memoir! Brilliant! 😉

    • Jonathan Byerly #

      I play alto saxophone with an forty-year old vox pickup that Miles used to use. After MUCH trial and error and literally 30 years of honing my sound- it sounds pretty awesome. That being said, I believe most technology appended onto an acoustic instrument sounds truly hideous. MIDI- Digital effects…BLA! It took almost thirty years to get the electric guitar to sound good. Added to that, I have found most ‘classically’ trained musicians have no instinct for electronic modifications or the resultant sound. I believe there is a paradigm that new technology is good and we should embrace it. That thinking led to nuclear bombs and nuclear power… but like sheep being led to slaughter, it looms as inevitable.

  7. 13

    You all are getting great press out of this!
    Hi Bernie, I met you in Monterey – I’m playing your old J English bow!
    For more crazy viola antics check out Classical Revolution
    Every Monday 8-11pm at Revolution Cafe 3248 22nd St SF
    Or at a bar or cafe in a town near you!

  8. 14

    I’m curious to know what Mr. Zaslav’s expectations were, coming into a performance curated by Pamela Z, especially given the description available: Is it the responsibility of the performer/presenting organization to prepare the listeners and give them a warning that risk-taking art might include elements that make one uncomfortable? Do readers think Mr. Zaslav should have suffered in silence? How could this have been handled differently?

  9. 15

    It is the responsibility of the presenting organization to make sure that the audience members are safe. The promotional material for the concert simply mentioned “electronics.” To most classically-minded musicians, “electronics” means electronically-generated sounds, not ear-splitting and dangerously-high decibel levels.

    Kenneth Woods explains the problem of irregular dispersion of electronic sounds. There are hot spots that you can miss. Bernard Zaslav happened to be sitting in one of those hot spots.

    • Miranda Jackson #

      I attended a new music concert in Munich last year at which we were warned the electronic music in the second half would exceed a certain number of decibels. Free earplugs were available in the foyer. My colleague and I enjoyed the first half of the concert and opted to leave at the interval rather than risk ear damage. We were given the choice and took it. I think a warning should have been issued and venues should offer emergency lighting and stewards who can enable audience members to leave discreetly. What if Mr Zaslav had been taken ill and needed emergency attention? He should have had access to an emergency exit, surely?

  10. 17

    I’m sorry, but I don’t at all buy Mr. Zaslav’s response. There was a simpler way to alleviate the “excruciating pain” of his experience:

    Mr. Zaslav, in the future, choose the other side of the childish behavior spectrum and simply COVER YOUR EARS WITH YOUR HANDS OR STICK YOUR FINGERS IN YOUR EARS. Even three-year-olds know how to do that, and SHAME ON YOU for treating a performer as I’m sure you never would have wished to be treated in your career, then blaming your response on inability to react appropriately. Furthermore, I find your shameless plug at the end of your above comment a bit disgusting in light of the poor behavior you showed and your lack of respect for your fellow performer.

    My kudos to Pamela Z and JHNO for trying to present this piece and I hope when it’s performed in the future it gets a more respectful response, no matter what the audience thinks of it as a musical work.

    • Brian Rosen #

      Katie, to be fair, JHNO also plugged his upcoming concert with Zoe Keating at the Great American Music Hall in his original response.

      Getting some eyes on some new music activity is one of the nice things that could happen from this event. My blog has certainly seen a lot of traffic in the past 48 hours. (Although the traffic is pretty limited to this page. I’m a crappy self promoter.)

      • 19

        Yeah, but I kind of feel like JHNO earned that plug simply because it’s fair for him to let the people who attended the concert or are hoping to hear another performance know that he’ll be performing again soon in the future since his concert was interrupted. Mr. Zaslav, however needs to pipe down.

  11. 20

    I don’t believe, in this situation, that Mr. Zaslav needed to “suffer politely”. In this instance, I feel that the correct response would have been for him to leave. And, in fact, he was asked twice to do so. I was not aware that he had a physical problem leaving, and he never asked for any help in that regard. (When I asked them to leave, they didn’t say “we can’t”. They said “we came to hear Hank.” There was to be an intermission after JHNO’s piece, and then Hank, so they could have easily left the room and returned for Hank’s set.)

    But, to be clear, to those unfamiliar with the venue, the Royce Gallery is a TINY house. Mr. Zaslav and his wife were seated in the front row. The front row contains only 8 chairs. If memory serves, they would have needed to cross in front of 3 people to exit. If they required physical assistance to do that, anyone who they asked would have been happy to help them to the door. There is a lobby, and a a hallway outside the lobby, so they wouldn’t have needed to even go out of doors. I’m sorry if Mr. Zaslav felt assaulted by the music, but he was not trapped. It seemed to me that he preferred to remain and protest the performance over leaving the room.

    And finally, I’ll say this. I too am sometimes bothered when music is too loud. And I think Mr. Zaslav isn’t the only person who didn’t like JHNO’s volume level. But I think most people in the room would say that the volume level that night was not extreme. Still, I don’t condone forcing people to listen at levels they find uncomfortable. But, I really think the answer is to leave, if you are uncomfortable. There’s always room for debate later. But it’s uncalled for to stubbornly disrupt someone else’s performance when you have the option to let the rest of the audience enjoy it.

  12. Ken Ueno #

    I was there at the concert. During JHNO’s performance, I was able to clearly hear Mr. Zaslov’s protestations over JHNO’s amplified performance. Were JHNO’s volume level too high, I don’t think we would have been able to hear Mr. Zaslov. As Pamela stated, we all saw that Mr. Zaslov had a clear path, sitting in the front row, to exit the hall. His online statement above, attempts to relocate the discussion away from an aesthetic protest to one of decibel-level/discomfort. It would be nice, therefore, if he could go back and address his statement, “I am a violist, and this is a desecration!”

  13. 22

    pz – I think this calls for a second round. I’ll bring my electric violas, they burn longer!

  14. 23

    I wish to apologize for my error in confusing the two involved in this concert; I now realize that Charlton Lee is a founding member of the Del Sol Quartet, and not the Cypress, of which Ethan Filner is a member.
    I would also like to point out that as a longtime champion of new music for the viola, there may be some who refuse to believe that from where I sat, I experienced very real pain.
    A very interesting response was posted this morning by Kenneth Woods, which link I attach here;

    Finally, as I mentioned previously, I was trapped in my seat, under which I had put my cane. Knowing of my unsteadiness, Hank had found seats for us on ground level and not more than 4 feet from the loudspeakers. I first tried to find my cane in the near total darkness to leave, but with people seated close around me I realized I’d never make it out of there to the exit in the darkness. Perhaps JnHO’s piece was worth the hearing but I’l never know, because my concern was to stop the pain to my ears. I guess people who go to rock concerts regularly are accustomed to this level of aural insult, but many do pay the price eventually.

    My recent fall, which involved vertigo and some balance problems,in addition to my macular degeneration, hearing, and cardiac problems are things one lives with as old age takes its toll, but I came to this concert in hope of enjoying the increasing renaissance of the viola and have dedicated my own life to this cause. My best wishes to JNHO and I hope he may benefit from Kenneth Wood’s post as well as he continues his career.

    Bernie Zaslav

  15. 24

    All due respect, Mr. Zaslav, if you really felt “trapped” then why instead of shouting complaints about the music, did you not simply say “I’d like to leave” and request help. Everyone in the hall could clearly hear you over what you claim was ear-splittingly loud decibel levels, and I assure you that many of the good people there would have been happy to help you gather your cane and assist you out, had you shown any sign of wanting to leave. Instead you remained in your seat and continued heckling. Sarah Blake approached you early on and asked you politely and unthreateningly to leave the hall. That was a good opportunity to say to her, “I need help getting out”. I’m sorry, but you clearly were not trapped.

  16. Claire Goodman #

    As a violist and a friend of Bernie’s, I’m weighing in to say that I believe that no one should ever be subjected to painfully loud electronic music, especially when they have no way to escape it. This was the situation Bernie found himself in.

    As a musician I want to protect my hearing; therefore I do carry earplugs with me. The question here is whether it is necessary or ethical, during the performance of any work of art, to injure the audience in any way. Are painfully loud sequences necessary for art to “make its point”?. My opinion is – no. Great music which has survived centuries does not require pain on the part of the listener. Mr. JHNO wrote (here) that he was “making his debut as a solo performer” so he may be said to have a lot less experience in performance than Mr. Zaslav. He also wrote that he very carefully checked the sound levels before the performance. He was aware that the electronic performance was going to be very loud but he may not have taken into consideration that his hearing might not be as sensitive as that of some audience members. Upon hearing that JHNO smashed his own instrument on the stage, apparently in anger and frustration over the response from Mr. Zaslov, I was appalled. No violist in his/her right mind would throw their instrument to the ground on purpose!

    I wasn’t at the concert, but if I had been, I would have used ear plugs and/or hands over my ears, but if that didn’t work, I could have exited, even if it meant disturbing other audience members, in order to protect my own hearing. In summary, I don’t think music should ever injure or cause audience members pain, and that Mr. Zaslav did the only thing he could do.

  17. 26

    Dear Mr. Zaslav, with the way you clapped, in a deliberately intrusive way and your comment that JHNO’s performance was a “desecration,” it was clear to all present that the main issue was NOT the volume, but an aesthetic one. I would actually respect you more, if you stood by your aesthetic backbone and reengaged us on those terms. If you were mainly concerned with the pain in your ears, then, why did you not cover your ears (rather than use them to clap) or ask for help or say that it was too loud? Talk to us about how you thought how JHNO was playing the viola was not how you deemed respectable for the instrument. Talk to us about how you thought the music was not worthy of your listening to it. I, for one, would love to hear what you really think. However rudely manifest your initial actions were, you insult those of us who were there more with your revisionist history.

  18. 27

    A correction and some clarifications/observations for those who were not at the concert:

    1) The Raga that Hank performed was completely acoustic and unamplified. There was no “electronic drone background” (as Zaslav described). Rather, JHNO and I accompanied Hank on Tambura and Shruti Box.

    2) In reference the decibel levels: There was no decibel meter used on Sunday, so there’s no way to definitively resolve the arguments here concerning the levels. But I see some comments from people who I don’t believe were present, so I just want to caution against automatically taking Mr. Zazlav’s word (or my word) for it.

    I have no doubt that, for Mr. Zazlav, it seemed intolerably loud. People’s perceptions of sound levels vary enormously.

    If you ask any of my colleagues on the SFEMF committee, they’ll attest to the fact that I’m often on the other side of the argument concerning sound levels. The dangers of extreme volume levels are not lost on me. But I honestly did not think that the sound levels were anywhere near unsafe on Sunday. I won’t be stubborn and insist that I’m right about that. I happen to know that there was at least one other person besides Bernie Zazlav who thought earplugs would have been appropriate, because he said so. So perhaps, by some people’s judgment, the levels crossed a line. But I do think that most of the people there didn’t think so. And it still seems to me that volume level is not really at the heart of this controversy.


  19. 28

    Interesting new information:

    Bernard Zaslav called me directly today and apologized. That came as quite a surprise to me. He also asked for JHNO’s contact info so he could call him. I don’t know whether or not he’d be comfortable with me posting this information, but I felt it to be something that people engaged in this discussion should know. It certainly added another layer of complexity to the situation for me, and felt the need to share that.

  20. Alessandro Moruzzi #

    Hello to everyone! I agree that we can all disagree on what we like or not. An in fact I didn’t agreed or liked Mr. Zaslav rude and disruptive response to his disagreement with Mr Jhno performance. But I politely waited the (unfortunate) end of it to express my disagreement right in the face of Mr. Zaslav. And boy it felt great to do that !
    And ( BTW) I think I kept my volume to a respectful level.

  21. George Mattingly #

    I sat right behind Mr. Zaslav (and 2 seats to the left). Within seconds of the first notes of JHNO’s performance I could hear Mr. Zaslav and his wife muttering and complaining about the music. They didn’t even wait for themes to develop before judging, and to claim that they were in pain from ear-splitting volume is not believable by anyone who was in the audience that night. (N.B.: there were definitely no speakers within “4 feet” of the front row.)

    Mr. Zaslav’s objection, as he made clear (“This is a desecration!” and “This isn’t music!”) was to the music itself. When Mr. Z. began clapping and derisively shouting “Bravo!” and “You’re done. Leave!” it was no longer possible to listen to the music. At that point he had crossed the line separating his rights from everyone else’s. He could have left. He could have plugged his ears. But he had no right to prevent us from hearing a performance we had come to hear. None.

  22. Claire Goodman #

    I am not surprised to hear that Mr. Zaslov is man enough to apologize to a fellow musician. Ms. Z makes an important point in explaining that everyone’s ears are different and that two people can have different reactions to the ame decibel level. A great way to harm your hearing is to listen to sounds over 80 decibels regularly. I learned that while trying to limit decibel levels at my daughter’s middle school dances. Anyone who regularly attends rock concerts or uses headphones at unsafe levels will damage their hearing. Damaged hearing leads to greater insensitivity to loud sounds – the volume must be turned up. Hence many people require high decibel sounds because their hearing is damaged. Higher decibal sounds tolerated by many will be painful to some. Best to use dynamic ranges which will not harm or hurt anyone. I don’t like Berlioz and that won’tbe fixed by listening to His works louder.

    • 32

      Claire, I really don’t think the level was loud enough to “harm or hurt anyone”. I think that someone’s perception might lead them to think so when it isn’t the case. Mr. Zaslav, as I just learned, was wearing two hearing aids, and suffers from a condition caused by a fall. I don’t think I can be expected to program for that specific situation. I’m aware of situations where hearing aids can be caused to feedback or otherwise malfunction with certain sounds (even unamplified sounds. Perhaps this kind of problem contributed to his very different assessment of the sound than pretty much everyone else in the room. And, may I point out, this was a very mixed audience including a number of people who primarily listen to unamplified chamber music. This wasn’t a room full of ear-damaged people. As a person who wasn’t present, I just ask that you not make assumptions.

      • Claire Goodman #

        I wasn’t making assumptions – I know that Mr. Zaslov was not the only person to complain about the volume. I don’t think people ever want to pay money to be injured or harmed, or even annoyed. I don’t believe Mr. Zaslov, or anyone else, reacted to any of the other works on the program by begging for mercy – hence, it was the volume, and only the volume, which was the problem which caused a reaction. Mr. Zaslav was unable to leave the room for reasons now well known. He would have left the room if it were possible, I am sure.

        Taking care to keep decibel levels within save limits is good for both performers and audience. Great care is taken to shield viola players’ ears in the opera house pit, with the use of plexiglas attached to the backs of chairs, because they are seated in front of the brass players in a closed space. Musicians use their ears to make their living. I don’t know why a performer would subject him/herself to painfully high decibel levels, much less an audience.

  23. mary beth rhodes woodruff #

    as a string player formerly coached by bernie (and he was a fabulous coach on a shostakovich quartet performed at the kneisel hall festival in maine), i want to chime in with some of the larger issues i think this raises. what has been brought up about the concern of pure level of decibel one is subjected to with the intercession of technology in music is a very real issue. i don’t think one can discount that this was a ‘real’ issue for both the zaslavs and, it sounds like, others. in the future, i think it would be wise of all concert venues, especially small ones as it sounds like this was, in which there is amplification to provide ear plugs across the board. i also think that there should, perhaps, be warnings at the entrance of a concert hall that noise levels may exceed one’s comfort zone. i wish this were the case with movies as well, yet, i think it is fair to say that in the world of stringed instruments (and most classical instruments, for that matter), one is not expecting to be made uncomfortable by decibel level.

    it sounds as if it was probably the case that there were aesthetic concerns as well. these issues might have been intertwined with those of a purely physical nature (i.e. the pain in one’s ears). i can see how, if it were purely ‘physical’, it may be justified to try to halt a performance if one is elderly, in the dark and using a cane. i don’t think anyone can rightfully deny that mr. zaslav might have had a hell of a time trying to get out of there in one piece in the dark with a cane. i also know that too much sound makes this listener somewhat ornery. this may have been the case and the assault on his ears might have caused an attack on the aesthetics to be verbalized when, in fact, one might have been better off saving this until intermission in civil discourse. yet, this is a dear man with an incredible history of supporting new music. i don’t wish to speak for him, obviously, but i do find myself coming to his defense in that when we are threatened, and it sounds like his ears were threatened, we often act out beyond our usual sensibilities.

  24. 35

    After so much comment, speculation, and interpretation of my obviously rude behavior to a situation in which I found myself, I must maintain that I, and only I, can possibly know the degree of pain I was suffering. Yes, I guess I “lost it”in that stressful moment, but in my quoted comments, “This is a desecration!” and “This isn’t music!” I was referring to the level of pain, though I’m sure there are some who will not believe that. If I could have escaped without fear of falling (again) that would have been the wiser course, but it didn’t seem like an option in that dark, enclosed space – your basic nightmare.
    And yes, I was wearing the latest version of hi-tech hearing aids which still remain highly problematical in the real world, as those of you who require them well know, and I did attempt to remove them. After a fall and skull fracture as a child, I was required to have two successive mastoidectomies, a life threatening procedure then, and no longer done in this day of antibiotics. It has left me with a badly twisted left ear canal, a condition for which there is no remedy, so I must thank my audiologist for her efforts.
    The larger issue is one of my veracity in this contretemps, but I don’t expect convince doubters. If that box – yes, sitting 4 feet in front of me – wasn’t a loudspeaker, it certainly appeared like one to me, but I won’t quibble. As to the quality of the music, we all believe that we know innately “from good and from lousy”, as a departed colleague once said. What I’ve learned from this is not to put myself in a place where I don’t physically belong at my age, but that doesn’t preclude my wish to continue living for music, old and “new.” I’ve been the luckiest of any violist I know, and I won’t bore you here with my own happy journey (though – shameless plug, again – you might want to read about it in my upcoming memoir).

    I thank those of you who spoke of the good times we shared together, even as so many of my dearest colleagues have now departed. Hank Dutt called me today from New York, where Kronos is to receive the Avery Fischer Award, and he’ll share a table with three of my ex-students. I thank Pamela Z for her understanding, and I have tried to reach young JHNO by phone today, since I was, unhappily, the proximate cause (I still blame the loudspeakers) of his missed opportunity to perform on Sunday – I hope he’ll get the return call. I can imagine the road he’s travelled, since my own grandson, just graduated from Ann Arbor as a compter composer, is about to embark on that same journey. And the music goes on!

    Bernie Zaslav,

    • Claire Goodman #

      Bernie, you do belong at concerts, and next time, I hope you are seated in a place where you can employ the time-honored method of escaping too loud, bad, or annoying music – by simply walking out.

  25. 37

    People are reading all sorts of sinister motives into the picture which I don’t believe are there. My experience with Bernie is that he is a kind person (as well as an excellent musician who is genuinely interested in new music.) I have known people who make a scene at concerts out of ego etc…. Bernie is definitely not one of them.

    It’s unfortunate that some people’s concert (and performing) experience was interrupted….. no doubt…but I think it’s also unfortunate to demonize Bernie for what seems to have been an unfortunate set of circumstances all the way around.

  26. 38

    At the risk of losing sight of the real issue: hopefully this event will lead to 2 things:

    1) Increased awareness of the variability of electronic sounds (I remember almost passing out from a swirling, frenzied piece performed at a concert when I was in grad school that had speaker set up all around the room and would essentially “travel” throughout the space…but when you’re 22, you secretly like it, I guess, because I enjoyed it quite a bit).

    2) A career boost for JHNO, who now has the best debut story I’ve heard in a long time, even if it came at a great cost. If there is any justice, his work and performances will have an increased opportunity to gain an audience, which is never a bad thing. I’m sure Stravinsky laughed all the way to the bank after the Rite premiere. I’m sure Satie laughed after the Parade premiere because he was just a weird guy.

    The fear is that the gap between old and young concertgoers will only widen further after an incident such as this. We all look at each other with distrust and mild contempt anyway, but this is why, and I hope that no further gulfs form because of it. Good music is good music, whether by JS Bach or JHNO, and hopefully all good music is heard.

  27. Tom Sisk #

    I won’t comment on the situation above – I wasn’t there, I’m not familiar with the artist or his music.

    What I WILL say, however, is that it’s gratifying to see a comments section that contains cogent argument and civil dialogue. I’m one who believes that the YouTube comments section is the first and best indicator that our culture is going to hell in a hand-basket. Thanks to you all for providing me with counterpoint and balance!

    • Brian Rosen #

      Hee. Tom, that’s likely because the general public has no idea my blog exists. Shhhh. It’s a secret. 🙂

  28. 41

    As a performer, I must say that I’m thrilled when audience members get passionate about what they hear, and Sunday’s concert certainly brought out strong opinions and lively discussion. One older gentleman whom I had invited came up afterwards to thank me, eyes a-twinkling and said that it was the most fun concert he had been to in a very long time. Can’t ask for anything more. My only regret is the serious damage JHNO’s instrument suffered. What has been lost in this thread is the fact it was an evening full of solo viola pieces, which is unusual enough by itself, with cool pieces (in order) by: Edmund Campion, Reza Vali, Matt Cmiel, JHNO, Nils Bultmann, Ram Narayan, Joan Jeanrenaud, Pamela Z, and Pamela Z/Hank Dutt/Charlton Lee. Thanks to Brian for making sure that I’m playing with the right band…Del Sol. Here’s to hoping that audience members like Mr. Zaslav and others will express their enthusiasm for a piece with as much gusto as the their displeasure.

    • 42

      Yes, isn’t it great that music can still cause so much controversy!
      And yes, let’s be clear what we are debating here. It is the big question….what IS music….not Bernie Zaslav’s viola playing or career.
      As much as I was disappointed not to be able to hear the entire work from Jhno that evening I realized afterwards that I had been part of a great performance art piece…..spontaneous, emotional, thought provoking and involving the entire audience as well as the performer. And I certainly voiced my opinion that evening and was an active participant. Only when I went to approach the heckler at intermission to voice my opinion directly to him did I realize it was Bernie Zaslav. I of course am familiar with him, his wonderful playing and career with the Fine Arts Quartet, but this only caused me to engage more passionately in a lengthy discussion with him. I mentioned that he certainly was entitled to his own opinion but that it seemed unfair to me that his objection resulted in terminating the rest of the audience’s interest and enjoyment of Jhno and his work. The fact is that Bernie did object to what he was hearing which is why we are participating in this ongoing and lively debate!
      What does constitute music?
      Is all sound music as John Cage would profess?
      What are the reasons for music to be amplified or acoustic?
      Is how one plays their instrument more important than the resulting music?
      Why do we have expectations for certain genres of music?
      What makes music for one person but not for another?
      And the debate continues……

  29. 43

    New York Times/Bay Citizen article was published today:

  30. Sarah Blake #

    As the person who initially asked the Mr. and Mrs. Zaslav to leave, I want to clarify that I did not speak directly to Mr. Zaslav, but to his wife: indeed, I do not believe Mr. Zaslav either saw or heard me. After I spoke to his wife (I believe my words were something along the lines of, “If you aren’t enjoying the performance, you can please leave, because the rest of us are quite enjoying it”) and returned to my seat, I did notice that she tried to quiet Mr. Zaslav down, but I seem to recall that was only moments before JHNO apparently hit his breaking point (and understandably so). I mention this because I do not believe Mr. Zaslav was aware that they had been asked to leave. Not that it makes much of a difference to the story; I only wish that I had been more aware of his need for assistance in leaving, for his own sake as well as that of the rest of us. I would have happily provided it.

  31. 45

    And as you were sitting in front of me Sarah, I for one really appreciated your efforts. You handled the situation with much grace and respect trying not to disrupt the performance any further. At least you gave it an appropriate try!

  32. Duvidl #

    I certainly don’t condone Mr. Zaslav’s behavior, but couldn’t the performer simply have stopped playing and kindly asked Mr. Zaslav to leave or allow the performance to continue? To slam his viola to the floor in a pique of temper seems as immature and unnecessary as Mr. Zaslav’s interruptions.

    • Mr R #

      I believe there has been only one comment written about the violist being so out of control of his own response mechanisms that he could only throw his instrument to the floor.
      On first reading I presumed it was a publicity stunt on the part of the player. Some players have indulged in these antics for one reason or another, sometimes to amuse their colleagues. To have such a fragile ego as to “lose it” under duress, or to be unable to emotionally deal with negative criticism, for that’s what this was, by definition if not by customary style, suggests that music performance may not be the best career for this player. I wonder if he would have behaved similarly if he’d been holding a very valuable instrument? Was it for example an old Cremonese instrument? If it was, I would suggest he shouldn’t be allowed to touch one again.

  33. 48

    Maybe if we had more insurrections, composers and performers would think twice before assaulting our senses with what has become standard fare over the last 60 or so years. Can we please make music? I’m tired of enduring gibberish waiting for the Schubert.

    • Brian Rosen #

      Please consider that there are many of us who enjoy more adventurous and perhaps even experimental fare. You have plenty of opportunities to hear Schubert, don’t make it harder for us to find what we love.

  34. 50

    Pamela Z’s link to the Times story seems to point back here. This is a direct URL:

  35. 51

    P. S. The author of the Times article may have gotten something wrong – I would bet Mr. Zaslav told her about Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone works being booed at the Cleveland Orchestra in the 1940s.

  36. 52

    Good point. I wish this had happened and we still probably would have had a good debate but without all the damage!

  37. 53

    Bernie was correct about Schnabel’s 12-tone music. It’s a great story.

  38. 54

    Elaine, I was not doubting what Mr. Zaslav said but whether he’d been quoted correctly, because I know almost nothing about Schnabel’s compositions and their performance history in this country.

  39. 55

    I have been in conversation with Bernie by telephone and email. He has contacted me to apologize and, in his most recent communication, he explained to me that his discomfort was actually caused by his hearing aids and a medical condition he has (called “Recruitment”) that causes sound to accumulate and appear to be much louder than normal. Although I still wish he had had the wherewithal to exit the hall or request assistance in doing so rather than to disrupt the performance, I appreciate his recent efforts to extend a virtual olive branch and to acknowledge that his experience was different than that of other attendees.

    As sensitive, emotional beings, It’s astonishing what our reactions can be when overcome by emotion. In my estimation, Jhno’s throwing down of the viola was not an attempt to make a statement, but rather a kind of sudden involuntary response of frustration, which I’m quite certain he immediately regretted. The viola has already been repaired, by the way.

    Thanks to all of our abilities of introspection and civilized discourse, a lot of repair seems possible.

  40. 56

    Thank you, all, for a truly engaging experience in this dialogue. The way musicians can put all into it without regard for consequences is an admirable trait of world-class quality. When we offend, for whatever reason, I am glad to see humility shown, apologies and forgiveness. We are all servants of “the muse.” If I had been on stage, I wonder how I would have reacted. If I were courting disabilities, I doubt I would have sat in a place without easy access to the exits, I mean, it’s not just about escaping a negative experience, but also about being ready to hit the exits if a fire breaks out, or worse.
    I have played some interesting pieces that don’t fit into my definition of music, but there is something about playing it well that makes it so. I don’t think that people are THAT polite they cannot speak the truth when the music is really rank. So, aside from the shock that everyone had to experience, it sounds like a phenomenal show that I’ll never get to hear where I live in the midwest. But especially, thanks to the fine dialogue, it’s the musicians that make music real.

  41. Mr. B #

    I think Bernie should be given some slack.
    He’s 85! And I do believe he was in terrible pain.

  42. Alessandro Moruzzi #

    This is very exciting and rewarding, despite frustrations, unexpected adrenaline rushes and property damages. All of this pretty much repaired anyway it seems.
    Thanks Pamela for conceiving and hosting such a great provocative performance. You, Bernie and JHNO stirred a great debate about music. And thanks to all of you for discussing it. With passion !

  43. Carl Stone #

    What a tale! If Bernie Zaslav should indeed find himself “trapped” in a venue where the sound is too loud for him to tolerate, he should remember that hearing aids can be removed, and also have “off switches.

  44. Henry Jaffrey #

    This thread triggers some obvious thoughts to a neurologist.

    Mr. Zaslav’s response was clearly inappropriate and, according to those who knew him, completely out of character. Instead of sarcasm, he could simply have said the volume was too loud and causing him pain, and asked to have it turned down.

    There may be a medical explanation for this. Tellingly, there is impairment in gait and a hint of memory difficulty (with respect to Charlton Lee and which group he was in). A variety of conditions that can cause gait impairment, memory difficulty, and uncharacteristic and inappropriate behavior come leaping to mind: normal pressure hydrocephalus, progressive supranuclear palsy, Binswanger disease, subdural hematomas, just to name a few.

    I would encourage everyone to be compassionate and forgiving. I would also strongly encourage Mr. Zaslav to seek medical evaluation. This episode was clearly abnormal, and should not be brushed off.

    • Joel Taylor #

      I agree with Henry Jaffrey’s thoughts to the effect that Mr. Zaslav should seek medical attention, and add that he should consider consulting with his audiologist about the special problems that even the very best contemporary hearing aids have with music. Hearing aids are designed, not for listening to music, but to make speech comprehensible for those with serious impairment. People who have severe asymmetrical hearing loss may subject to hearing various kinds of distortions that others do not hear, especially with loud music. These include difference tones that simply do not exist for members of the audience with normal hearing, and the hearing aid will only make matters worse…In the future, Mr. Zaslov should consider bringing a pair of high-quality audiologist made ear-plugs to concerts where the sound is likely to be loud. Often a good pair of earplugs will do a much better job of making loud music (and I am not talking about rock levels, I’m just talking about loud music, like much contemporary unamplified Jazz, or amplified anything) comprehensible to someone with severe hearing loss than even the best hearing aids. Finally, in the end, he should seat himself where it is easy for him to leave the room, or be accompanied by someone who is ready and able to help him navigate his way to an exit if necessary. It’s clear that his response to the situation was not the best. It is also clear to me that this was a fabulous and amusing brouhaha to have been present for, and that the result was an interesting performance art of a type that is perhaps too rare. Wish I’d been there!

  45. 62


    When someone is acting like a brat at your show, return the favor in kind and turn up the volume. If the current volume is hurting a troll, imagine what more volume can do. All I see from this nuisance’s posts are “I, me, my,” etc. Take that same attitude about your art and defend it instead of tossing your instrument.

    • Sean Gugler #

      From this attitude stems most, if not all, the evils of the world. Escalation may be artistically interesting, at high levels and low (TV), but it is never to my mind worth the price of increased human suffering.

      • 64

        Actually, art and the evils of the world have nothing to do with each other. You’re out of your mind if you think my insistence the artist shouldn’t cave to a selfish audience member is related in any way to genocide or whatever you have in mind. This audience member’s lies about the event (according to numerous accounts here), selfishness, lack of foresight, and crass attitude ultimately ruined someone else’s expression. You would coddle such people? You would put a warning sign about decibels and make the artist supply ear plugs? How self centered. Your final barb about human suffering is quite obnoxious. This wasn’t about famine, it was about a grown man acting like a 16 month old. Period.

        • Sean Gugler #

          Your encouragement to increase a troll’s pain is what I find objectionable. There are ways to avoid caving that do not escalate hostility. And I do firmly believe that disputes over first transgression, when met with counter-aggression, are the root cause of the most avoidable sufferings. Why not eschew such policies on small scales as well as great?

          In this case, the dispute is whether decibels first transgressed against Mr. Zaslov’s hearing or whether his taste transgressed against the performance, citing decibels later for sympathy. You’ve chosen sides with the benefit of hindsight and discussion. In the moment, I caution that it is very very difficult to know whether someone is transgressing against me of his own initiative, or in response to something I’m not aware I did. I plead with everyone in this position to use minimum resistance necessary to protect yourself — be it your safety or just artistic integrity. Make it a habit, that you not regret your action when it really counts.

          • 66

            Why do you continue to insist that Mr. Zaslov has any standing here? Multiple accounts paint him as immediately objecting to the nature of the music, not the decibel levels. The host of the event has corroborated these accounts. Mr. Zaslov insisted he was trapped, but many accounts stated that he was offered an opportunity to leave and, regardless, would have not had a problem doing so. Multiple accounts noted that he actually was there to see a specific performer, a performer who provided the seating. My choosing sides “with the benefit of hindsight and discussion” is my taking all of the accounts into consideration, and calling Mr. Zaslov a liar. Considering Mr. Zaslov here apologized, and also called the event organizer to apologize, is proof that such behavior, even for the perpetrator, was a complete embarrassment.

            When someone makes an ass of themselves, ruins something for everyone, and then lies about it, only to basically be called out by multiple witnesses prior to issuing an apology, the last thing you should do is rush to their defense. Issuing a warning about sound before a show? Providing ear plugs? All of this is absurd. Any seasoned concert goer should bring a set of plugs for themselves just in case. If they’re using a hearing aid and something goes wrong, turn it off. If they refuse to do these simple things, if they refuse to leave, and if they, instead, insist on ruining a show for everyone else, they deserve all of the shame, mocking, and yes, pain in the ears that can be dished out.

            To think that any concert goer has the right to dictate to the artist what they want to play, that they can put themselves above the show by mocking the artist, making a racket, and then LYING about it, is beyond me. This concert goer is not entitled to anything, and the artist, with seasoning, will realize that encroachment into their performing space by a buffoon is an opportunity to assert their position as performer.

            Again, art and large scale wars and famine have nothing to do with one another. Trying to paint the two as based on the same principle is absolutely ridiculous, but, hey, you’re defending a self-centered, show-ruining liar POST backtrack, so what should I expect?

          • Brian Rosen #

            Hey folks. This particular subthread is reaching the boundaries of what I consider respectful discourse. Please tone it down a notch or two. (Although given Mr. Banks’s recommendation to “turn it up” in the face of disagreement, it may not be surprising that it’s escalated in this fashion.)

  46. Charles Barber #

    To answer Mr Banks’ question, Bernard Zaslav has standing here because he earned it in a 60 year career. In numerous quartets, ensembles, concerts, festivals, recordings and studios, he has demonstrated for more decades than most of us have been alive a deep commitment to new music. His connections to Ben Johnson and Elliott Carter are well-known. Bernie has championed many and much more than that.

    He has standing because he is one of our great elders in music. He has taught hundreds of students (myself among them) and inspired hundreds of concerts. His devotion to our music is breathtaking.

    I wasn’t at the concert, and I don’t know the music. But I know the man. Bernie is as fine, decent and committed a musician as we may ever know. He is a lovely human being who has helped more students and composers (myself among them) than the public or Mr Banks will ever know. He clearly regrets what happened, and that’s good enough for me.

    Bernard Zaslav has a lifetime of standing up for new work. That is his ‘standing’ here, and no one can take it from him.


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