Utah news organizations have been poking around Weber State University’s campus this week. Unfortunately, most of that attention is not directed toward the exciting men’s basketball team, or Coach Ron McBride’s retirement.
On Sunday night (for those who haven’t heard), there was an incident during the WSU combined orchestra and choir’s performance of Beethoven’s ninth symphony. Michael Palumbo, director of WSU’s orchestras, was conducting the symphony and, after a few attempts to locate the cause of a childlike noise from the audience, stopped conducting and demanded that whoever was making the noises leave or be taken out of the auditorium.
As it turns out, the cause of the noise was an 11-year-old girl who suffers from a neurological disease called schizenphaly and is mostly noncommunicative. She was attending the concert as part of HopeKids in Utah, a nonprofit group that gives children with life-threatening medical conditions a chance to attend live events. The noises, which many audience members called “persistent,” were, according to C.R. Oldham, HopeKids’ executive director, the child’s attempts to react to the music.
As things stand, Palumbo, who is a talented musician and accomplished director, has reached out to the family of the girl and apologized. He has also apologized to local media outlets, vowing never to handle a noise situation like that again.
HopeKids called it “a big misunderstanding,” and it seems that no one is now labeling the issue as Palumbo’s unfair treatment of a person with disabilities. No one has expected him to have known the girl was disabled, as evidenced by several differing reports from audience members as to the age and gender of the child.
Now, we are a few days removed from the incident, but there are a few issues that remain, and are likely to continue garnering attention:
1. WSU Performing Arts has a strict policy of only allowing children aged 8 and up to attend their performances. This girl was 11, and technically over the line, but was disturbing the performance, and should have been taken out earlier by a parent or guardian (though reports say she was being taken out as the final incident occurred).
2. Regardless of whether or not the person making noise was a child, an adult or a person with a disability, Palumbo’s handling of the situation was unprofessional and, according to many choir/orchestra members and patrons, more unpleasant than has been generally reported. The child’s noises disturbed the concert, but Palumbo’s actions ruined it.
3. When a cell phone goes off during a play, the actors don’t stop and stare until it is silenced. A movie theater doesn’t stop a film to wait for unruly teens to settle down. Before Palumbo’s outburst, a house manager or usher (or even an attending fellow professor or dean) should have handled the situation by asking the girl’s parents to watch the performance from closed-circuit television from the lobby, thus preventing the incident from ever happening.
4. WSU Performing Arts’ affections for treating live events as recording sessions can make an uncomfortable environment for audience members who have paid for tickets. The department, with the help of local audio genius Ray Kimber, produces high-tech, wonderful recordings of their bands, orchestras and choirs, but at what cost? Ninety percent of the population knows how to behave in a concert, and 10 percent will keep walking in and out, texting and sneezing at important moments. The expectations of the performing arts faculty for audience silence are unrealistic, and the pursuit of quality audio recordings should be a class-time activity. It is the department of performing arts, after all, and not the department of recording arts.