Classical Attire-d

An open rehearsal of the Berlin Philharmonic(Photo: Schnittke (Flickr))
An open rehearsal of the Berlin Philharmonic(Photo: Schnittke (Flickr))

I don’t know about you, but I’m well-nigh worn out from all the flap about the orange cocktail napkin – I mean, dress – Yuja Wang wore while performing a Rachmaninoff piano concerto at the Hollywood Bowl.

What’s my solution? To wear out the rest of you with my own thoughts about classical musicians’ performance attire.

As absurd as it was, the furor over Wang’s wardrobe selection did include some reasoned discourse on the issue of how art and packaging should work together. Tim Smith states the bottom line of all that chatter as lucidly as anyone:

If an outfit — whether worn by a man or woman — is so in-your-face that the audience is likely to talk about it more than your music-making, don’t wear it.

Agreed. But there’s another side to this issue, namely that people’s expectations of concert life have changed dramatically in the last couple of generations. And those changes seem to involve a number of factors, chief among them being what now counts as the types of performance people want to experience.

Let’s travel back in time to our grandparents’ generation. Those were the days when people got dolled up for a night of glamor on the town. Locked at home scrubbing floors all week? Saturday night rolls around and you give yourself an up-do, put on your A-line taffeta dress, wrap yourself in a mink stole and head to the concert hall to see a posh-looking orchestra perform with an equally posh-looking, pedigreed soloist. Oh yes, you’d hear them perform, too.

Today, we’re interested in other people’s glamor but mainly through the back door. We – especially the younger incarnations of “us” – want to see Demi Moore dolled up on the red carpet at the Academy Awards, but we think it’s cooler if she tweets about life at home with Ashton. Whereas fairy-tale glamor alone might have satisfied an earlier generation, we want fairy-tale glamor and human realness; we need to know that the people who’ve made it big are really, at the end of the day, just like us.

Hence the efforts on the part of classical musicians (or at least those who market them) to showcase their non-elitist humanity. Nothing has accomplished this more effectively, in my opinion, than the pre-performance and intermission features of the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD transmissions. Soprano Karita Mattila’s telling millions of viewers world wide “let’s kick @$$” before stepping on stage to sing the title character in the Met’s production of Richard Strauss’ Salome a couple of seasons ago certainly blasted away any residue of classical pretense from her image.

So the question is: how do we present a beautiful, classical art form in such a way that appeals to real people who want to experience art by and with other (even phenomenally gifted) real people?

Anyone who’s watched even fifteen minutes of reality t.v. or enjoyed a flashmob knows that in a post-modern (or even post-post-modern) world, we like the random, the varied, the unscripted. A typical classical music concert embodies very few of these elements. But a fairly typical classical music rehearsal embodies virtually all of them.  So maybe the solution to the “problem” of classical concert attire isn’t the attire, but the concert. Taking our cue from New York’s Poisson Rouge, classical music performances aren’t always concerts anymore; but maybe more of them should be open rehearsals. And not just the run-of-the-mill open rehearsals that orchestras have grinned-and-borne for decades now. I’m talking about open rehearsals that have been turned into events with the kind of indie cred that puts people in seats.

Imagine this: the Anytown Philharmonic Orchestra is gearing up for its performance of Joe Classical’s Violin Concerto. A charismatic violinist is slated for the solo role. You, a Gen Y-er or beyond, don’t want to go to the Friday or Saturday night concerts because you’d be exhausted from the workweek on Friday and the Saturday time would chip into your precious reality t.v. viewing hours. Plus, isn’t there some secret protocol for these concerts? How will you know when to clap? (Note: when to clap is not, for most reasonable people, a hot-button issue anymore. Clap whenever you like.)

But you scroll down on the orchestra’s Web site and you see that the orchestra and the soloist will be having an open rehearsal Friday afternoon, for which tickets are half the price of the formal concert tickets.

“Cool,” you think, “you mean I get to see the orchestra musicians and the charismatic soloist in jeans and T-shirts letting art unfold in real time? Why, that’s even better than reality t.v. Plus, I can live tweet about it without getting dirty looks from anyone else in the audience.”

You ask your boss if you can take a late lunch and you and a few friends meet at the rehearsal venue, outside which a phalanx of food carts hawk local-food goodies. And you get to hear the music one small chunk at a time and you also get to hear the kinds of things musicians talk about as they’re pulling a performance together. And when the musicians take a break, they come into the audience and chat with you. And you go back to the next rehearsal because the third violist was a cool person to talk with, not some hothouse flower holed up backstage meditating.

And no one’s raised any eyebrows over what anyone was wearing. Why? Because it was a day in the lives of a number of real people, who happen also to be classical musicians. And some real people have jobs that allow them to wear jeans and a T-shirt – or even an orange microdress – to work.

So what do you think? Is there a problem with informal concert attire at classical music concerts? If so, is the problem with informal concert attire the attire or the concert? And if the latter, what should the classical music concert of the future look like?

  • Anonymous

    Not necessarily informal–but sometimes it’s a bit risque. I remember being at the Verdi Requiem concert last year (with CSO), and the soprano soloist’s gown had plunging V-neck that went almost to mid tummy! That was VERY distracting. 
    I always dress up when I go to the symphony, the ballet, the opera, the theater. It’s a sign of respect for the performers, but I also think that if I’m going to spend a decent amount of money for a seat in a beautiful concert hall, I should look the part. The performers have worked hard to present the program, and I want to respect them by looking the part, not like I just wandered over from my basement. My presentation and my attitude play into the entire performance–they get energy from me. 
    At the symphony, I prefer all black for everyone, although I’m partial to the tuxes and nice skirts. But all black is fine. I don’t want to be distracted by big statement hair and clothes in an ensemble.