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About A Week: The Concert Cough

...It makes you think of an exchange of machine-gun fire between battle trenches. Some modern composer will eventually orchestrate these harsh sounds...

Peter Hinchliffe is irritated by concert hall coughing.

Why do folk start to cough as soon as they sit down in a concert hall?

For most of the day they get by without a single peff or throat-tickle, then they take their seats in Huddersfield Town Hall and before you can say "mentholated lozenge" the racket begins.

Cough, cough, cough, cough, cough...

It makes you think of an exchange of machine-gun fire between battle trenches. Some modern composer will eventually orchestrate these harsh sounds.

The. concert-cough phenomenon is by no means exclusive to Huddersfield. Audiences worldwide are affected by the same extraordinary throat-tickle. On every continent folk cough in the same language.

Here is a tape of Russian Orthodox church music, with the famous tenor Nicolai Gedda, recorded at a concert in Warsaw; This should be uplifting, inspiring. But no! Cough-cough-cough, all through the performance. Let me tell you, a Polish cough is just as jar-ring as a Yorkshire cough.

Perhaps every concert should begin with calming words from a guest hypnotist. "Close your eyes. Concentrate on my voice. Your throat is clear. You cannot cough. You will not cough."

So here we are in Leeds city art gallery on a Wednesday lunchtime, gathered to hear a concert of piano* music. The 18-year-old soloist Teleri-Sian Roberts launches into a Bach fugue ... and the coughing begins.

The first salvo comes from a chap in a Harris tweed jacket, over on the left. A man in a waxed jacket instantly responds from the other side of the aisle. Harris tweed fires back.

Oh dear! These two have chosen the art gallery as the setting for a gutteral duel.

Now the chap in front of me starts up. Look at his ears! They stick out and bend forwards at the edges. Perhaps he's a regular concert goer whose ears are so eager to receive the emanations from the platform that they have, over time, started to curl forwards.

Between the Bach and a Haydn fantasia there is another all-too-brisk interchange of coughs.

As the orderly fantasia unfolds, my thoughts meander. For someone who doesn't know his andantes from his cantabiles it is difficult, if not impossible, to devote one's entire attention to a piece of music.

... Good old Papa Haydn. The world would be a far poorer place without him. How many symphonies did he compose? 102? 104? Hope I'm never asked that in the White Horse quiz.
Then there were all those quartets and masses. Masses of masses. His head must have been awash with music. No time for other thoughts. While shaving he'd be putting the finishing touches to a symphony. Did Haydn shave ... ?

Now Teleri-Sian is playing Debussy. Images, Book 1. Debussy is the ideal composer for someone whose thoughts drift and wander. His luscious musical portraits are open invitations to day-dreams.

... A hidden valley, deep in rural France. No sound of cars. Only bird-song. Sunlight splashing greenly through the trees. Fresh bread. Camembert cheese. Chablis cold enough to bead the bottle ...

Come to think of it, I float through life on a tide of notes. Indoors, it's classical, with lots of Radio 3 and Classic FM. In the car, on long journeys, when I'm feeling younger, it's Roy Orbison, U2, Meat Loaf, the Stones ...

Mostly it's dassical, but I confess to being a half-listener. Beethoven, Mozart and all their tribe are usually the background to reading The Examiner, The Times, or a book.
Excuse me while I have a little moan. There's too much talk on radio music programmes. It keeps us from concentrating fully on the printed word. It's almost as annoying as a concert cough.

Classic FM is a leading offender. The station survives on advertising, so one reluctantly accepts verbal interruptions. But blandishments for investment opportunities, sauces and motor insurance do not sit easily beside a Mozart piano concerto.

The one group, the one setting which does encourage me to devote fullest attention to the classical masters is Huddersfield Recorded Music Society which meets on alternate Mondays in Huddersfield Junior Library.

Without any help from hypnotists, members have mastered the art of sitting quietly. They're a friendly lot. There's plenty of chat between musical offerings. The atmosphere is more that of a sitting-room than a concert hall.

Programmes are varied. They include information about compos-ers and performers. This season there has been music inspired by the sea, spirituals by the great bass Paul Robeson, and an evening of tenor voices which firmly put the overrated Luciano Pavarotti in his place.


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