Written by: Leonard Slatkin
“The average noise level in the orchestra during the piece was 97.4 decibels – a violation of new European noise-at-work limit” … So ran a headline in the New York Times on 20 April 2008 … and Leonard Slatkin’s imagination is fired…
It was to be a very ordinary evening at Symphony Hall until chaos erupted quite unexpectedly. By the time it was over, two men had been arrested with another possibly being exhumed.
The case in question involved the rarely noticed Second Trombonist of the Upper Lakes Region Symphonia. The first half of the program had gone without incident. A Rossini Overture followed by a Mozart Piano Concerto. It was only after the intermission that things became perilous.
An oversized orchestra was employed to perform Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No.1. It started out peacefully enough. The sounds of nature emanated from the instruments with birds chirping and other tame beasts under control. Then, about 10 minutes into the first movement, all hell broke loose.
You sensed that something was up when the bassoonists, who sit near the trombone section, began to put their fingers in their ears. The visual aspect of this might not have been so disturbing, but the presence of Plexiglas panels all over the stage should have given us fair notice. But in one shattering moment, the atmosphere of the concert-hall was totally disrupted.
A uniformed policeman came running on, halting the performance. Rushing into the trombone section he demanded: “Who has been making all this racket?” The bassoon section pointed fingers behind toward the culprit, James Sackbutt, currently the number two trombonist in the orchestra.
The officer went directly to the offending musician: “You are in direct violation of the European Union Sound Act of 2008. The volume level you achieved was three decibels over the amount specified in Section 4, paragraph 3 of the Code. You are hereby ordered to cease playing immediately”.
“But the music specifically says Fortissimo”, argued Sackbutt. “Plus, the trumpets have a triple-forte at the same time and I don’t see you giving them a citation”.
“I can only track one player at a time. And they simply did not appear on the sonic radar gun.”
Sackbutt countered: “Besides that, the conductor asked me to play the passage loudly. He is my boss and I am not supposed to argue with him.”
Officer William Guardate then moved to center stage to confront Maestro Massimo Extremo. “Did you knowingly encourage Mr. Sackbutt to play above the decibel level prescribed by the European Sound Union?”. “No”, replied Extremo. “I was simply trying to obey the instructions left by the composer some 120 years ago. No one complained about it then and I do not see why we should be complaining about it now.” “The law is the law”, said Guardate “I must insist that you and Mr. Sackbutt accompany me to the police station, where charges will be filed.”
Twenty minutes later, a district judge ordered that the composer be contacted about his role in the matter. “But he has been dead almost 100 years!” responded a frustrated Sackbutt. “Surely you cannot find out what he intended as regard volume levels. And there were no regulations about volume back then.”
Judge Camilla Jurisprude then issued a court order for the exhumation of the body of Gustav Mahler, in the hope that some DNA evidence might be uncovered which could exonerate the two musicians. “It could be that something in Mr. Mahler’s genetic code caused him to over-achieve when it came to issuing instructions to the musicians.”
In the meantime, the orchestra has been ordered to play nothing other than music by Grieg and Delius for the remainder of the season.