- Swed kicks things off.
- Anne Midgette has a few things to say.
- Amanda Ameer and I think alike.
- Alex Ross chimes in.
- C.K. Dexter Haven asks some excellent questions at All is Yar
- Maura Lafferty is confusing.
Long ago, I discussed a related issue: Lara St John's Bach album, on the cover of which she is dressed in her violin. There was a lively comment thread, which has, alas, disappeared in the demise of Haloscan. (Somebody remind me why I used Haloscan for comments back then, hmmm? What a mistake!)
I saw Wang for the first time in June in San Francisco, playing Bartok in a concert that was a mess. The balance between the piano and the orchestra was awful where I sat among the members of the Music Critics Association. Moreover, the concert was on Thursday night between Die Walkuere and Siegfried, so I was a little tired out, hence no blog posting about the program. Anyway, Wang was wearing high heels and a short dress, as in the program Swed reviewed.
My personal policy is not to comment on performers' dress in paid reviews unless the performer is filthy, unkempt, wearing a dirty or damaged outfit, etc,, though I've occasionally made such comments here. (I must have mentioned that orange paisley number Anne-Sophie von Otter wore at a Berkeley recital once, right?) I am not being paid to comment on fashion, though I'd be happy to editorialize on the general topic of concert dress. And in fact, I will!
Briefly, I'm fine with a wide range of on-stage outfits, from tails for men and long black for women to Nehru jackets, black turtlenecks, brightly-colored loose tops with stirrup pants, whatever. I see no reason to reflexively dress orchestras and other performing arts groups in the stiffest and most formal clothing. For some string quartets, a particular look is part of their image. The Pavel Haas players didn't wear tails or long dresses in the SF debut; the St. Lawrence String Quartet has worn black, but not formal attire, the couple of times I've seen them. I'll mention that cellist David Finckel of the Emerson looked overdressed and a little silly in white jacket and bow tie when he played second cello in the Schubert Quintet with the SLSQ back in 2005. On the other hand, the Labeque sisters were absolutely adorable in non-matching, slightly eccentric, outfits at SFS a couple of years back.
But I think there's a risk in dressing too revealingly. Do you want to call attention to yourself or to your performance? Especially for women, you risk being taken less seriously if it looks as though you're selling your looks rather than your chops. For that matter, didn't that happen to Nigel Kennedy when he was appearing dressed as a hipster?
Midgette somewhat misses this point, I think, in her defense of Wang; she talks about how sexist it is that women's clothing choices get criticized in ways that men's don't. Well, think about that for a minute: any male performer showing as much skin as Wang would get comments and criticism in the press. Try to imagine the shrieking if Kennedy turned up dressed only in shorts, suspenders, socks, and shoes. You bet you'd hear about it, and critically, too.
The reason you are not hearing about it is simply that women can dress in a wider range of clothing than men without being completely scandalous. I've seen women play, sing, and conduct in trousers, in formal suits, in long dresses, in tuxes, in skirts & blouses. This is just one of the asymmetries of expectation regarding women and men. And it's useful to keep in mind that women can get away with some of the outfits they wear because they conventionally remove certain body hair. You are just not going to see naturally hairy women's legs and underarms on the concert stage - although I think I may have caught a flash of underarm hair decades ago on a female soloist at SF Symphony.
There's another point where I disagree with Midgette: she notes that it's perfectly normal for young women of 24 to dress the way Wang does, especially young actors. Well, sure: it's part of their job to draw attention to their bodies and looks, and to get out there looking good. But being a babe is not the work of a classical musician. It's a false equivalence. It's okay to have different expectations of classical performers than of actors; they're not in the same business at all. Really, classical music should be working to distinguish itself from other entertainment options, not trying to be just like them.
And keep in mind that what looks cute or sexy on a thin 24-year-old very likely will not look so good on a 45- or 65-year-old. We all age, unless we're dead; the image that works when you're young might not work so well when you're older.
Lastly, I think Midgette is completely wrong to say that Wang's dress and manner "represent some of the best chances we have of getting those under-18-year-olds into the concert hall to begin with." Really? And what evidence is there that young people will go to see Wang because of how she dresses? I want to see the evidence, because I bet there is none, other than a few anecdotes collected by Greg Sandow about young people being put off by formal dress. While I think there are good reasons for performers to wear a greater range of clothing styles than they currently do, I also think that young people are perfectly capable of learning about and becoming comfortable with formal dress conventions.