By Sarah Lyall

April 21, International Herald Tribune

LONDON: They had rehearsed the piece only once, but already the musicians at the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra were suffering.

Their ears were ringing. Heads throbbed.

Tests showed that the average noise level in the orchestra during the piece, "State of Siege," by the composer Dror Feiler, was 97.4 decibels, just below the level of a pneumatic drill and a violation of new European noise-at-work limits. Playing more softly or wearing noise-muffling headphones were rejected as unworkable.

So instead of having its world premiere April 4, the piece was dropped. "I had no choice," said Trygve Nordwall, the orchestra's manager. "The decision was not made artistically; it was made for the protection of the players."

The cancellation is, so far, probably the most extreme consequence of the new law, which requires employers in Europe to limit workers' exposure to potentially damaging noise and which took effect for the entertainment industry this month.

But across Europe, musicians are being asked to wear decibel-measuring devices and to sit behind see-through anti-noise screens. Companies are altering their repertories. And conductors are reconsidering the definition of "fortissimo."

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photo: A flautist for the English National Opera playing with a noise meter on his shoulder (By Richard Meads/English National Opera)