Classical: Symphony for snifflers

With the cold season's arrival, Ian Pillow retunes his ear to the concert sneeze
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The Independent Culture
SO WINTER is just around the corner again. All the signs are here; not just my fingers creaking with the shock of Mahler, Stravinsky and co, after a summer of outdoor Strauss and Sondheim; not just my brain creaking too. It's the weather, the effect of it on our concerts, and on the continuing prosperity of one of our most successful small businesses.

Yes, Rentasneeze is back in operation.

You can always tell a Rentasneeze graduate. The sound quality is of vintage sonority, and the timing is impeccable. To qualify for a course at the Rentasneeze Academy, only the finest tubes will do. It is also essential to have musical knowledge, preferably as a practising musician with a good sense of rhythm.

Students prepare well fortheir final session in a controlled concert environment. The night before, they take a hot bath, then a nippy midnight walk, wearing an open-necked shirt, shorts and a pair of floppy sandals. They then sit in the lecture room and, to the strains of the New World Symphony coming from speakers, the room is sprayed with a fine mixture of dust, pepper and dog hair. Those who pass will have timed their sneezes to coincide with dramatic pauses. A second-class honours is awarded to those who perform exactly after, and in rhythm to, the final drum beat of the opening bar.

Rentasneeze this year fielded a graduate not only at the first concert of the autumn season, but the second as well. On both nights their virtuoso contributions were timed exactly with the intake of breath by the brass players for the solemn chorale at the start of the second movement.

Since musicians need to undergo a trial period for a position in an orchestra to demon- strate ability to cope with the peculiarities of concert-hall conditions, the services of Rentasneeze are being called upon whenever a trombonist or tuba player is tried out.

We rather enjoy these nasal and bronchial obbligati. After all, we play the New World quite a lot, and it does rather sound the same each time. To hear it in its enhanced orchestration is a welcome novelty.

It would seem, though, that Rentasneeze, and its amalgamated company, Hireaspasm, are not universally welcome in our concert halls, and steps are being taken to curb their activities. Cough sweets have already proved effective. So much so, that at concerts copies of scores are handed out with suitable bars coloured in red - marking the point when sneezers can unwrap their sweets.

At the beginning of the concert the PA bellows out: "Good evening. This is your conductor speaking. Please refrain from sneezing when the NO SNEEZING signs light up. Our cruising speed will be crotchet equals 96. We may encounter a spot of turbulence in Stravinsky, as my beat malfunctions occasionally. We shall be landing in approximately 90 minutes. The weather at the end of the Rite of Spring is earthquakes with pack ice clearing from the south."

It is even being suggested that audiences should undergo a medical before being allowed in the auditorium. Any sign of a cough or cold, and it's straight back to the multi-storey.

I have already had experience of this problem in the very first concert - the one with the New World. It wasn't a member of the audience who caused the problem, though. It was my partner. The opening of the prelude from Tristan and Isolde is very quiet; there are indeed some silences. So silent that not only can you hear a pin drop but any gurgling well- satisfied stomach, too.

My partner was powerless, I was helpless. Later, I had to explain the reason for my mirth. As one who has to use the English language before concerts to try to convey vividly and eloquently the glories of the music to come, I'm afraid I made embarrassingly heavy weather of it.

"Well, you see, we'd just got to the first silence when the person sitting next to me's stomach ... no, the stomach belonging to the person sitting ... no, the person sitting next to my stomach started to rumble."

Before the next concert I surreptitiously poured an antacid into his coffee.