OGDEN -- Weber State University music professor Michael A. Palumbo responded to critics Tuesday after audience members from the Sunday night concert he conducted contacted the media with complaints.
At issue was Palumbo's decision to stop the concert twice after he heard what he calls a high "howling" sound from a disabled audience member seated near the rear of Austad Auditorium at Weber State's Browning Center.
Palumbo's recollection of events that followed differs from that of some angry audience members, including Leila E. Van Tassell, of Eagle Mountain, who submitted a letter to the editor to the Standard-Examiner.
"The house was packed," Palumbo said. "We had never had such a big audience, and the noise level was higher than usual. I figured it was the size of the audience, which was easily double the size of the audience we usually have.
"Then I was aware that someone was making an inordinate amount of noise, a howling, which sounded like a baby crying. I turned around from the podium and looked into the audience, and said something to the effect of 'Bye-bye, you need to leave now.' I was trying to make light of it so I didn't sound too much like an ogre."
Van Tassell's letter describes the event like this:
"Instead of the uplifting evening we were hoping for, we sat through an appalling temper tantrum thrown by the conductor, Michael A. Palumbo. After a small noise from the audience, he slammed his baton down, turned to the audience and demanded that anyone with children making a noise leave. He refused to resume until he was convinced that anyone who could not remain silent had left."
"We restarted, and the howling started again," he said. "A concert isn't a place for very young children."
Van Tassell wrote that Palumbo, "repeated his earlier tantrum with even more pompous jack-assness. When informed by people from the audience that the 'offending' person was a handicapped person, the conductor remained unmoved. ... I cannot excuse his arrogant, boorish behavior."
Palumbo said he could not hear because of other audience noise from the crowd of approximately 1,200, but audience members did yell and point at him. Colleagues in the audience later informed him he had been called unflattering names, he said. Palumbo heard later that the person who made the noises was a handicapped girl of about 12. The girl and adult members of her party left the auditorium.
"I found out after the fact that it was a handicapped child, but it was unruly noise just the same," Palumbo said. "I hate being characterized as someone who has a problem with disabled children or adults, because I am not. The problem is with the noise. Noise is noise, and it doesn't matter who is making it. Noise interferes with the rest of the audience's enjoyment."
Palumbo said he has stopped concerts about a half-dozen times in his career because of audience members, but he has never faced wrath like this.
"This seems to be different, because this is the first time a mentally challenged child was the focus of my request," he said. "That's the only thing I can figure."
Kimberly Mathie, a Weber State graduate who now lives in West Jordan, said she hates to see her friend and former professor attacked in the media. She was not at the Sunday concert.
"I was in the Weber State Symphony Orchestra, Chamber Orchestra and also played in a quartet for five years that represented the university," Mathie said. "What I know for sure, after working with Dr. Palumbo all of those years, is that Dr. Palumbo is a good, kind, and caring man."
Mathie, a cellist, said audience noises can be very distracting to performers and tend to sound amplified on stage.
"Obviously, I am sad and heartbroken for the handicapped person and their family that this happened to," said Mathie, who has a daughter born prematurely who may have some disabilities as she grows.
"I have empathy for everyone in this situation," Mathie said. "It's a hard situation, and I don't know what should have been done. I would not want to say there is anything wrong with having a mentally disabled child at a concert. They have the same rights as anyone else.
"I know I would not have taken my child to that concert, if she met the age requirement, out of respect for everyone else. But everyone has the free agency to do what they want in life."
Mathie said she believes Palumbo was just looking out for the rest of the audience, who paid to hear the music.
"He's a very good man, with good intentions," she said.
John Kowalewski said he has been told of a wide range of audience responses to the event, with some supporting Palumbo's response and others finding it offensive.
"We are striving to create a concert-going experience to be enjoyed by all," he said. Kowalewski said the incident points to the need to review performing arts protocol, and consider options that could include better informing ticket buyers of expectations regarding audience conduct, making on-stage announcements prior to all performances, and giving house managers and ushers authority to intervene in case of audience disturbance.
"This is a learning opportunity for everyone involved," he said.