Entertainment & Arts

Renowned violinist berates coughing child

Kyung Wha Chung Image copyright Other
Image caption The violinist had not played in the UK for more than a decade

Renowned violinist Kyung-Wha Chung has shocked audiences at the Royal Festival Hall by publicly berating the parents of a coughing child.

The South Korean prodigy had been absent from the London stage for 12 years, partly due to a finger injury.

But the 66-year-old took offence at a child coughing during her performance of Mozart's Sonata In G.

"Maybe bring her back when she's older," she scolded the parents from the stage.

Anna Picard, music critic for The Times, said the atmosphere in the hall had already been tense, such was the anticipation surrounding the violinist's comeback.

"With one shrivelling put-down, a tetchy atmosphere turned toxic," she wrote in her review.


At the scene: Magnus McGrandle, BBC News

There wasn't any more coughing than you might normally expect from a Royal Festival Hall audience in December. But what was remarkable was the number of children in the audience - maybe 50 in total. Young prodigies, no doubt.

Early in the first half, between a movement of the Mozart Sonata, there was a lot of coughing. People were getting it out of the way before the music started again, but it clearly irritated the violinist a lot.

Then, just as she was about to resume playing, she picked up on a child - either coughing or talking - and conferred with her accompanist. After that, she said, very pointedly, to the child's parent in the side stalls, "maybe you should bring her back when she's older".

Intermittently over the next 20 minutes she would look in their direction as she played. There was little doubt what she seemed to be communicating - your child shouldn't be here.

In the second half, she definitely mellowed. By the end, she was all smiles - and played three or four encores. But the audience's deafening applause wasn't enough to wake the dozens of children who'd long ago fallen asleep!


British violinist Thomas Gould was also in the audience, and tweeted: "Difficult to be charmed by Kyung-Wha Chung's Mozart after her curious outburst at parents of a coughing child.

"But the raised temperatures added an extra belligerence to her taut Prokofiev," he added.

Fellow string player Elizabeth Stahlmann noted that there were "plenty of people coughing" during the performance and it was "not cool to pick on a child".

Some were more sympathetic to the violinist.

"I would like to publicly express my gratitude to Chang for drawing attention to this issue," wrote composer Sasha Valeri Millwood on the Slipped Disc website.

"Poor audience behaviour has ruined a great many concerts in my experience, both on occasions where I was on stage and on occasions where I was in the audience."

Coughing is a particular problem for classical performers in the winter months. An academic paper released in 2013 even suggested that people appear to cough more in concerts than in they do in normal life.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today programme last year, concert pianist Susan Tomes said: "I certainly do notice it, but I think it has something to do with the fact that people have gotten so used to hearing music amplified.

"Many types of music are so loud, but classical music is not, and when you go to a classical concert, you forget how quiet acoustic instruments are."

Intense personality

Kyung-Wha Chung's concert was laden with expectation. Lifesize posters of the South Korean musician had even appeared around London declaring "The Legend Returns".

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The 66-year-old was one of the most prominent soloists of the latter half of the 20th Century

She became an international star in 1970 after a performance with the London Symphony Orchestra, playing the Tchaikovsky Concerto.

The Sunday Times named her one of the most prominent violinists of the 20th Century, and she took eight curtain calls in the 1990s when she played Bartok's Second Violin Concerto at the Champs Elysees Theatre in Paris.

But her career was cut short when she lost the use of her left index finger in 2005.

It is thought that an overdose of the steroid cortisone, used to treat swelling, caused the finger to weaken, but she continued to practice pieces in her head - which she credits with keeping her on form.

Despite her outburst at the Southbank Centre on Tuesday, reviews for her comeback have been largely positive.

"Chung gave a recital in which every note was brim-full of her impetuous, intense personality," wrote Ivan Hewitt in the Telegraph.

The Guardian's Erica Jeal said the tense atmosphere informed "passages of plucked notes that sounded ferocious" during Mozart's G Major Sonata K379, although she noted the 66-year-old's intonation was "less than focused".

The Royal Festival Hall said it had not received a complaint from the child's family after the performance.

"At this time of the year in particular, coughing isn't uncommon at events at any venue," it said in a statement to the BBC.

"We don't discourage parents or carers who wish to bring young people to an evening event and we do, where possible, check that they are aware of the nature of the event.

"We are aware that Kyung Wha Chung is also a keen supporter of young people experiencing classical music."

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