An incident during Sunday night’s concert in the Browning Center generated controversy among some attendants and media outlets.
As Michael Palumbo, director of orchestral studies at Weber State University, conducted the symphony orchestra in the Austad Auditorium, he paused before starting the fourth movement to address a noise from the audience.
Palumbo said the noise sounded like a baby crying. According to Browning Center event policy, children younger than 8 years old are not allowed at certain performing arts events. He said he didn’t know at the time that the noise was coming from a mentally disabled individual.
“Noise is noise,” Palumbo said. “So I asked to have the child removed immediately. It had nothing to do with being handicapped . . . I went down to the front of the stage, and I waved and said, ‘Bye bye, you need to leave,’ or something like that, trying to keep it from sounding like I was being mean and nasty about it.”
Palumbo said he has seen several blogs and articles about the incident that painted him in a negative light. John Kowalewski, media relations director at WSU, said he heard the performing arts department has received mixed comments; some described the noise as more like a gentle cooing, and said Palumbo reacted harshly or disrespectfully, while others said the noise did sound like a baby crying and was disruptive.
Upon being confronted by Palumbo, the family of the disabled person and several other members of the audience left the auditorium.
WSU senior Michael Cummins, who plays the trumpet in the orchestra and whose wife, Chelsea, is in the choir, said the noise was disruptive, but that Palumbo might have overreacted.
“It was actually harder to hear the instruments than it was her,” Cummins said. “. . . I think he (Palumbo) was a little more angry than it necessarily warranted, but at the same time, he was feeling the same things that we were, and he’s the one in charge of it all, and it all lies on him whether or not things go well, even if it is his fault or not. So I can understand where he’s coming from, and why he could be so frustrated. He possibly went a little over the top, in my opinion.”
Cummins said he does not blame Palumbo for the situation.
“Basically, I would like people to understand that it’s very difficult for musicians, much less the conductor, to be put in that situation, because we’re trying so hard to make it right,” he said. “We’ve worked months on this piece of music, and it’s very difficult to play when we’ve got a distraction like that.”
Thomas Priest, chair of the WSU Performing Arts Department and a bassoon player in the orchestra, said it was unusual that the conductor would have to deal with such situations personally.
“He kind of got forced into handling the situation, which, if you think about it, if it was the Utah Symphony or it was a concert at Temple Square, the performers would never handle that situation,” Priest said. “That would be expected of the staff. So he came out looking not very good, which is unfortunate, because he does a good job for us.”
Kowalewski said the university will be looking into event protocol, to determine if change is needed.
“We want a performing arts event to be an enjoyable, cultural experience for everyone in the auditorium, and, sadly, that was not the case on Sunday evening,” he said.
Kowalewski stressed that the situation was “unique” and that the Browning Center staff was not at fault either. He said staff was not approached about a disruption before the pause in the performance.
“I think, again, it’s a case of the house manager and the ushers doing everything in their power to make the event as enjoyable and fun in the auditorium as possible, and I think they did a fine job with that,” Kowalewski said. “I think what you find here is that this was a unique situation, and hopefully a situation that everyone can learn from.”
Reports conflict as to the age and gender of the audience member in question. Palumbo described the guest as a child of 11 or 12 and in a wheelchair. Cummins said he heard the guest was female and around 10. KSL.com reported the guest was a man, while posters on WSU’s Facebook page said the guest was a woman.