400 Alarm Clocks Walk Into The Symphony

“At this time, we invite you to turn off all cell phones, smart watches, tablets, electronic devices..”

Before cell phones became omnipresent, what sounds were most likely to interrupt on stage performances?


There have long been ill-timed coughs, crackling candy wrappers, and livestock who love themselves an outdoor concert. 1991 Chicago, however, was home to an altogether new kind of ruckus.

The much-lauded Chicago Symphony Orchestra was celebrating its centennial season. This would be an all-out event with two past maestros – Rafael Kubelik and Sir George Solti – joining esteemed current musical director, Daniel Barenboim. The trio would conduct the orchestra through a recreation of the CSO’s first concert in 1891.

To honour the orchestra’s 400 most devoted donors, an elaborate pre-dinner was staged. Delicious food, gushing speeches, and a gift: a fancy digital alarm clock.

Fast forward to the concert. Patrons were kindly requested to turn off all signal watches and paging devices.



The Wagner, conducted by Barenboim, went off without at hitch. Marvellous! Brava! Then came Sir George Solti conducting Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor. Ba Ba Ba Bum. Incredible! Those most famous four notes, fate knocking at the door, so convincingly delivered.

But, as the ‘Symphony of Fate’ continued, the beeps started. Just the odd one here and there. Beep in the Orchestra. Beep in the Boxes. What was that? Had those pesky patrons forgotten to turn off their signal watches? Why did they all sound the same?

Solti and the orchestra powered on. After a bemused Intermission, it was time for Sir George to conduct Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B Flat Minor with Daniel Barenboim at the keyboard. But, precisely at 9:15, just after the orchestra started, the beeps came back one hundred-fold. Poor Solti and his musicians tried to forge on, but by the end of the first movement he’d had enough. “I thought I was losing my mind!”

Just as Solti held up his hand to stop the concert and chastise the beep-happy audience, the CSO’s Executive Director Henry Fogel ran onto the stage. A staff member had finally figured out the source of the beeps – a suspicion confirmed when they dashed out to the lobby to test one of the gifted alarm clocks. Yup. Same beep. Someone (Wagner?) must have inadvertently (😉) set the majority of the clocks to go off at 9:15.

Fogel asked all those patrons with alarm clocks to pass them down to the ushers; they could be reclaimed at the end of the show.

Full-fledged crisis averted. Solti and the CSO could proceed with a beepless Tchaikovsky and then, after Kubelik conducted Dvörak, the concert ended in rapturous applause. A centennial to remember.

Header Photo: Elisa Michelet




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Elizabeth Newton

Elizabeth Newton