The violence quickly spread from one end of the orchestra to the other, as tuba players went after trumpeters, bassoonists and oboists had at each other, and the French and English horns decided to have another go at the Battle of Waterloo. The symphony, caught off-guard by this turn of events, as most authorities usually are, it seems, sent its musical director down to the rehearsal hall to calm the situation down, only to see this gentleman wind up face down in a kettledrum. Institutional dithering being what it is, the symphony tried to keep the police out of the matter, which only led to a rapid increase in the violence. Finally, faced with the attempted lynching of one of the symphony’s more prominent guest conductors, whose advocacy of such modern composers as Ives, Varese, and Bartok angered the more traditional supporters of the classical repertory no end, the symphony’s leadership called in the police. The Boston police deployed several hundred officers in full riot gear, a SWAT team, and a hostage negotiator in case things turned truly ugly. Despite the massive show of force, however, it still took the police several hours and the liberal use of tear gas to quell the rioting and get the situation under control. The police arrested over a dozen rioters and several more members of the symphony had to be hospitalized, including the second violin, who had multiple contusions, a fairly massive concussion, and a piccolo wedged halfway up his backside.
No sooner had the riot ended than critics began attacking the police department’s tactics in suppressing it. Almost all the critics pointed out that police clumsiness led to the destruction of at least one Stradivarius cello and an Amati violin, which were both almost literally priceless, and more than one critic said that the police presence was altogether too Wagnerian and out of place in the middle of a Vivaldi concerto. Friends of the violinists told reporters afterwards that the police deliberately targeted them for abuse and arrest, even though the violinists were the victims of the initial attack, proving, they said, that the police shared the same long-term prejudice against violinists that caused the riot in the first place. Many of these same friends demanded an immediate investigation of the police department’s handling of the situation, calling the department heavy-handed and inept.
Defenders of public order swiftly came to the defense of the police, pointing out that the police clearly gave the rioting musicians more than enough time to stop fighting and leave the hall; videotapes from the symphony’s own surveillance system also show the police warning the rioters to stop fighting or face the consequences, albeit on bullhorns that were obviously out of tune and therefore had no business in a concert hall. The liberal use of tear gas also had a detrimental effect on the overall quality of the cellos, making their sound weak and tremulous when it should have been strong and passionate. And, as everyone pointed out, the sirens, bullhorns, and other police instruments were all out of tune. Perhaps there is a future for them in playing the moderns, but on the whole, this sort of thing can be forgiven once, I think, given the exigencies of the situation, but the Boston Police Department will have to spend more time, a lot more time, working on their sound in the rehearsal hall if they ever wish to return to the concert stage again.