Lileks: Trouble at the mall? Classical culture clash is surely at fault

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 29, 2011 - 9:51 PM

The news of Monday night's riot at the Mall of America shocked many, who insisted it be called a fracas. Other citizens, grasping for reasons why the outbreak of violence came at a time of holiday cheer, said it was a melee. But one thing is clear: Mall officials were stunned by what some are calling the worst outbreak of music among middle-aged, classical-music fans in the city's history.

As far as we've been able to reconstruct the event, it began with the rumor that popular conductor Claudio Abbado was in town and might visit one of the mall's 16 cummerbund stores. Ironically, Abbado was in Paris, where a performance of Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantasitique" -- already controversial for its themes of recreational drug use and violence -- resulted in a free-for-all that put 127 people in the hospital. Nevertheless, hundreds of the conductor's fans, many wearing shirts that read ABBADO TO THE BONE, were gathered in the food court, when they encountered a group of music lovers allied with a rival conductor, Daniel Barenboim. Said a witness:

"These two dudes, they're dressed for trouble, the tails, the white scarf, everything, they start sneering at each other, and then the other stands up and sniffs dismissively, and then one dude gets out some opera glasses and looks down his nose at the other, and the other dude says 'So's Yo Yo Ma," and it was on." The video, available on YouTube, shows the rioters throwing wadded-up napkins at each other, screaming insults in Italian, and picking up chairs and putting them down forcefully a few inches away.

One man was hospitalized with a stab wound, but it turned out he slipped and fell on an oboe reed he had in his pocket.

The event brought to the public something the mall has struggled to contain for years: an influx of bored, aimless classical-music lovers whose alienation from contemporary culture has left them isolated and rootless. The mall has attempted to reduce the possibility of clashes between rival classical-music groups, including a ban on clothing that indicates a preference toward different periods of classical music -- red for Romanticism, blue for the Classical period. This policy was overturned after lawsuits by members of the Lowry Hill B-Roques and the Kenwood-Haydn 104s, who insisted that their garments were actually "rubicund" and "cerulean," not red and blue. Since then, some say, the mall has put store workers at risk.

"I know it's not PC to say it," said a clerk at a music store, "but I get nervous when they come in, because there's always trouble. They roll their eyes when they pass through the pop music, you know, the stuff that sells and keeps the lights on, and then they go back to the classical bins. That's when the trouble starts -- one of them says, 'I guess they don't have the complete Bruno Walter recordings of Bruckner, but what can you expect?' really loud, and everyone in the store tenses up, and then another one says, 'Walter? That old slowpoke? Cold molasses runs faster than his scherzos,' and then the fists start flying and they're swinging at each other with NPR tote bags." The clerk asked not to be identified, fearing reprisal. "One guy I kicked out of the store, I saw him in the food court later? And he just stared at me and made this motion like he was playing a violin. I don't know if he was implying Chopin's 'Funeral March,' but I had security walk me out to my car anyway."

It was hardly the first example of classical-music-inspired violence in the metro; fistfights outside Orchestra Hall have become common in recent years, as concertgoers, fueled by white wine and the thrilling crescendos with which the programs usually end, start brawls over the smallest slight. "Used to be just the men," said a police officer engaged in the beefed-up patrols, "but now you have women pulling hair and slapping each other because one supposedly coughed during a quiet moment of great emotional intensity. It's crazy."

The City Council has been looking closely at Orchestra Hall's license, but sources in the community say that unless their grievances are understood by the wider society, more unrest will follow. "Stop using 'Ode to Joy' at the end of the first 'Die Hard' movie, for God's sake," said one. "It's almost a deliberate provocation."

"This ain't finished, Schubert," one rioter shouts at a fleeing foe on the YouTube video. He could have been speaking to all of us.

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858 More daily at www.startribune.com/popcrush.

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