The chorus of coughing between movements is a familiar sound to orchestral audiences – especially during winter concerts – but coughing during the music can be distracting for both musicians and listeners. Just this month Limelight’s editor Jo Litson overheard one audience member politely ask another to leave when her coughing failed to ease. The formidable Italian maestro Riccardo Muti – in Sydney earlier this year for performances with the Australian World Orchestra – took things a step further during a concert with his regular band, bringing the entire Chicago Symphony Orchestra to a halt on Saturday night, the Chicago Tribune has reported.

Riccardo Muti, Australian World Orchestra, AWORiccardo Muti conducting the Australian World Orchestra. Photo © David Collins

The famously stern maestro dropped his arms and the orchestra stopped playing after a quiet moment in Cherubini’s Chant sur la Mort de Joseph Haydn was disrupted by talking audience members and a loud cough. While the conductor is not above making jokes in rehearsal, music is a serious business for Muti – as he told Limelight’s Clive Paget, “to make music is something sacred and demanding.”

The maestro is – according to the Chicago Sun Times – more prone to an over-the-shoulder glare than to stopping the music completely, however.

“This type of situation does not happen often,” a Chicago Symphony Orchestra spokesperson told the Tribune in an emailed statement. “However, if there is a significant disruption during the performance, a conductor may choose to stop the performance, allowing the musicians and the audience to regain focus.”

According to audience members, Muti exclaimed “It’s impossible” – though at least one suggested he might have also uttered an expletive – before explaining to the audience that the musicians couldn’t hear each other during a pianissimo section.

One audience member thought the ruckus had begun with a double bassist repositioning their instrument, which set off talking in a section of the audience. “Whatever they said, it must have carried to the podium,” said Jonathan Dabian, a CSO subscriber, who also thought he heard the maestro swear.

“And then if it wasn’t bad enough, a woman shouted out, ‘Bravo maestro!’” long-time CSO subscriber Andy Simmons told the Tribune. “A couple people started clapping. And he did not turn around but he took his baton and shook it, just to scold her. And I think he said, ‘enough,’ or something like that.”

“But other than that it was an amazing concert,” Simmons said. “One of the most amazing concerts we’ve seen there, ever.”