What went through Israel Yinon’s mind as he gave his very last performance?
The scene was one of profound beauty. Renowned Israeli conductor Israel Yinon was helming the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra of Central Switzerland with gusto, guiding them through Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony.
The symphony, which was featured on one of the first commercial CDs ever pressed, is described as “an extraordinarily complex programmatic work representing a climber’s ascent to a mountaintop (with excursions along the way), descent, and contemplation of a majestic sunset.”
That night, January 29th, 2015, the Lucerne Culture and Convention Centre housed an engrossed audience, watching and listening intently as the 50-minute tone poem arrived at the 13th of its 22 continuous sections, Auf dem Gipfel (On the Summit). The orchestra soared, the strings and horns blending together in a splendid, characteristically German fortissimo as the conceit reached its climax — the mountaineer had summited the peak.
The orchestra dropped down to highlight a serene, extended oboe solo played by Yinon’s long-time partner, Dr. Amari Barash. She had finished her solo when, suddenly, screams erupted from the front row and among the performers.
Israel Yinon had fallen headlong over his podium, crashing to the stage floor.
The fallen conductor sustained a severe head wound and lay prone while several people rushed forward to perform CPR. He struggled to maintain consciousness, staring into Amari’s face; she spoke to him, trying to keep him awake. As horrified musicians picked up their instruments and rushed off the stage, the aghast audience silently departed the concert hall, stunned. Yinon died where he had fallen.
Seeing a person die — seeing life leave the face of someone who but moments before had consciousness, feelings, fears, dreams, an existence — has to be deeply disturbing, no matter the context. But it’s difficult to imagine the shock, the abject horror, of seeing an artist or performer drop dead onstage. One envisions a dichotomous experience, both intensely personal and, in a way, detached — a room full of strangers, alone together, become momentarily united by this powerful reminder of mortality, of indiscriminate, inexorable death.
How many people turn away? How many rush for the exits in panic? And how many fix their gazes on the stage as the scene unfolds?
Of course, it’s only natural to be entranced by the sight of death. We’re fascinated by the very idea of dying, of ceasing to exist. So much human intellect and creativity has been devoted to dissecting the notion, to parsing it out, personifying it, preventing it, and assuaging the fear it causes. We write, make art, and compose music about it. We desperately try to conquer it through understanding, both scientific and spiritual. We analyze and mythologize and dogmatize it.
Yet we still obsess, still find fascination and intrigue in death. And of all the manners, all the occasions, in which to die, passing away onstage must surely be one of the most uniquely intriguing. Try to imagine the feeling of passing away during the height of a performance, dying while doing what you love most in the world in front of an audience who’s paid to see you do it. The idea might be terrifying… or downright romantic.
Israel Yinon was hardly the first conductor to meet his end while in the throes of orchestral direction. Stories of artists dying onstage abound throughout music history.
The litany of classical music conductors and composers who met this fate is extensive: Jesús Arámbarri, Franco Capuana, Narcisse Girard, and Dimitri Mitropoulos all passed away onstage. The same end befell conductors Giuseppe Sinopoli, Arvīds Jansons, Fausto Cleva, Eduard van Beinum, Kirill Kondrashin, and Giuseppe Patanè — all of whom died of heart attacks.
Sometimes these tales carry cryptic undertones that challenge the random indiscrimination of death. In July of 1968, German conductor Joseph Kielberth collapsed while conducting Tristan und Isolde, falling to the same Munich opera hall stage where renowned Austrian composer and conductor Felix Josef von Mottl fell in June 1911. Von Mottl had also been conducting Tristan und Isolde when he suffered his fatal heart attack, though he lingered for a full 11 days before passing away.
Some of the stories are disturbing outside of the deaths themselves: On Good Friday, 1956, Fritz Lehmann, a 51-year-old, Mannheim-born conductor, was cut down by a heart attack during a brief pause in his direction of the St Matthew Passion. Instead of stopping the concert, another conductor took the podium to finish the performance. Only after the sacred oratorio had concluded was the audience informed of Lehmann’s death.
Though their subjects may not be well-known, these episodes are but a portion of the lore surrounding onstage deaths. Dozens of such deaths have been documented, some more infamous than others. Singer Nelson Eddy, one of the first “crossover artists” (in addition to performing frequently on television and radio, Eddy appeared in 19 musical feature films), was felled by a cerebral hemorrhage in 1967 while performing at a Palm Beach, Florida hotel. Bassist “Skinny” Dennis Sanchez, notably mentioned in the Guy Clark song “L.A. Freeway,” died of heart failure onstage at 28 years old.
“Here’s to you ol’ Skinny Dennis,” sings Clark, “The only one I think I will miss / I can hear your low bass singin’ / Sweet and low like a gift you’re bringin’.”►
Mid-performance heart failure also took bluesman Johnny “Guitar” Watson, prolific indie multi-instrumentalist Mark Sandman (of Morphine), percussionist Thomas “Papa Dee” Allen (of War), and operatic tenor Richard Versalle, who dropped to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera from a ladder just moments after crooning the lyric, “You can only live so long.”
One of the earliest documented accounts of a strange onstage death dates back to 1822, when Americo Sbigoli, an Italian opera singer, died while performing Giovanni Pacini’s Cesare in Egitto. A particular section of the opera featured a vocal quintet, and Sbigoli, the second tenor, was singing the same phrase as Domenico Donzelli, the first tenor. Attempting to overpower Donzelli’s tremendous, booming voice, Sbigoli strained himself until a major blood vessel in his neck burst, killing him.
Scottish rocker Leslie Harvey was fatally electrocuted while playing with Stone the Crows in 1972. In a scene morbidly reminiscent of Almost Famous, the guitarist had grabbed a microphone that wasn’t properly grounded.
History is strewn with tales of mid-performance deaths, but some of the most notoriously violent fatalities have occurred in the last dozen years.
Just after 11 p.m. on February 20, 2003, glam metal outfit Great White were breaking into their opening number, “Desert Moon,” in front of a packed room at The Station in West Warwick, Rhode Island. Mere seconds into the song, the band’s tour manager, Daniel Biechele, set off some fireworks — pyrotechnic, spark-producing cylinders called “gerbs.” The sparks from the gerbs set ablaze the foam padding surrounding the stage, and within minutes, the entire club was engulfed in flame.
Realizing something was amiss, that the fire wasn’t part of the band’s act, much of the audience stampeded toward the front exit. But the crowd bottlenecked in the narrow hallway leading to the door, and hundreds found themselves trapped in a crush of desperate concertgoers. Most of Great White managed to escape via the stage exit, which, according to witnesses, was then blocked by a bouncer who told the panicked crowd the door was for band members only. Guitarist Ty Longley wasn’t as lucky as the rest of his bandmates. In addition to Longley, the inferno claimed the lives of 99 other people, making the Station nightclub fire the fourth-deadliest in U.S. history.
Onstage deaths are almost always accidental, though there exists one recent, high-profile exception. On December 8, 2004, Damageplan, the metal group formed from the ashes of Pantera by brothers Vinnie Paul Abbott and “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott, took the stage at the Alrosa Villa, an unassuming roadside club in Columbus, Ohio. As the band played, Nathan Gale — a crazed fan who, half a year earlier, had gotten physically violent at Damageplan show in Cincinnati, jumping onstage and trashing $5,000 worth of gear — pulled out a nine-millimeter Beretta. He leveled the weapon at Dimebag Darrell and fired three rounds into the guitarist’s head, killing him instantly. Gale continued shooting, letting off a total of 15 shots and murdering three others before being killed by a shotgun-wielding police officer. This past December, fans marked the 10th anniversary of the killings, paying tribute to the beatified Dimebag’s discography and legendary musicianship.
Disparate and fragmented by appearance, wealth, and belief as the human race may be, we all have one thing in common: our mortality. Humanity has harbored a culture of death since the first members of our species became self-aware enough to acknowledge each others’ expiration. Ritual and tradition dominate and pervade our relationship with death. We bury, we eulogize, we pause from the rush of our daily lives to ruminate and mourn. In this culture of death, dying itself is a performance — our very last — one that enthralls observers, commanding their attention and emotional investment.
Physically, the act of dying can, in many cases, appear a show unto itself as the body contorts and moves involuntarily, or the moribund person struggles against the inevitable. And executions, murders, suicides — all these violent forms of death are especially performative. For much of history, public executions were a common custom; even today, death penalty states allow a small group of people to observe the process.
Murders, from mass shootings to intimate homicides, often involve showy or theatrical elements — be these killings public, with the aim of garnering attention or sending a message, or private, with the crime scene doctored or staged. Suicide is far and away the most performative way to die. Acts of suicide like hara-kiri, sati (an Indian custom in which a widow throws herself onto her husband’s pyre in front of funeral-goers), and even jumping from a bridge are all highly ritualized. More attention-grabbing are those visually documented acts, like the self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức, the monk who killed himself in protest of South Vietnam’s persecution of Buddhists, or the televised suicide of Budd Dwyer.
But the show doesn’t stop after death. There are, of course, rites to be performed. Funerals vary, but whether they’re viking-style or of the New Orleans “jazz” variety, traditional spectacles almost always accompany death. Even deceased, we’re still performing as we lie in our caskets or on our pyres, watched closely and praised by a mournful audience. And from austere death masks, to ornate elegies, to imposing structures, we devote our creativity to memorializing the departed.
If death itself is a staging of sorts, then perhaps we can consider dying onstage oddly metaphysical in that this particular demise entails
We can also think of these deaths existentially. Assuming when we die, we actually cease to exist and nothing — no reincarnation, nor a disembodied trip up to paradise or down to perdition — further happens, dying onstage seems like a pretty decent way to go. Most of us place such a strong emphasis on death — staving it off, preparing for it, building up to it, cowering before it — that the very notion causes distress, let alone the process itself which, if it doesn’t happen instantly, can be ineffably terrifying. The musicians and conductors who’ve died mid-performance all did so suddenly, unexpectedly, doing what they were most passionate about, free from the worry and misery of a prolonged illness or a degenerative disease.
Indeed, there are surely innumerable, significantly less pleasant ways to go out than during an exhilarating musical performance. “Father died doing what he loved best in the world, the thing to which he dedicated himself in full — music,” Israel Yinon’s daughter, Shir-Ran, wrote in a post on the deceased conductor’s Facebook page. “He collapsed in the Summit movement of the Alpine symphony… He died while he was at the summit, while he was happy. That is our comfort in this great sorrow.”
It is possible Yinon himself felt a modicum of comfort prior to passing away. As human beings, we’re burdened with impermanence. We don’t live very long and most of us won’t be remembered after we’re gone, a notion we’ve struggled with and fought against since the first ruler neurotic enough about being forgotten forced his subjects to build him a statue or temple or some such vain structure. We crave remembrance, legacy.
Many of those who died onstage were lucky enough to see the fruits of their own labors immortalized — in the form of published compositions, recordings, documented performances, and even awards — before they died. Some were even lucky enough to see themselves celebrated. And a few experienced massive success, garnering both opulence and legions of fans.
It’s hard to imagine what thoughts were going through Israel Yinon’s mind as he gave his very last performance, lying on the stage floor and staring into the eyes of his principal oboist while those crowded around him futilely attempted to save his life. Perhaps he worried, panicking at the physical pain and the realization his health was in dire jeopardy. Maybe he thought about his daughter or Amari Barash or the orchestra full of university students seated in front of him before he’d toppled from the podium. Perhaps his sole focus was on the music.
Perhaps he wondered: Why have they stopped playing?