Friday, August 12, 2011

The Return of the Concert Attire Discussion

Yuja Wang wore an orange, barely-there dress to play a concert the other day; Mark Swed reviewed, and now a bunch of people are talking about it. Here are the relevant links:
Be sure to read the comment threads where available.

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.


john_burke100 said...

This may have come up in comment threads--I haven't plowed through all of them yet--but has anyone considered the possibility that Yuja Wang's management encouraged her to wear sexy outfits? There are a lot of brilliant young pianists out there, and some of them are Asian women, and ya gotta have a gimmick, so (to switch from Sondheim to Brooks) if you got it, flaunt it. (Besides, those white audiences can't tell one foxy Asian chick from another.) Am I being too cynical to suggest this has occurred to artists' managers? Put it another way: is there such a thing as being too cynical about the entertainment business?

Lisa Hirsch said...

That is an excellent question - I have NOT read all of the comment threads yet, so I don't know whether anyone else has suggested this possibility. said...

Good writing, Lisa! I had blogged about it as well ... both right when I attended a concert she was in, and then in response to Midgett's article. What I wrote was "meh" compared to what you have here. Thanks much!

You are much better at writing so you win a gold star.

Anonymous said...

I will mention clothes, or other visual matters, in a professional review if I consider it an important contribution to the aesthetics of a concert, and I have done so. (I can think of certain violinists [male, btw] with a distracting habit of wandering around on stage while playing, and if I ever review one of them, I'll mention it if I see fit.)

Swed does go on about it, and he seems more shocked by the outfit itself - rather naive of him - than by its being inappropriate for the venue, but to all those who say that the artists should wear whatever they want, I reply: then the reviewers should say what they think about those clothes if they want.

(You ask why you used your old comment software. Why do you use your current comment software? I almost always have to try twice before it accepts the comment, and sometimes it never accepts it, and I go off, silent into the night.)

Daniel Wolf said...

This topic seems to turn up at regular intervals, in my memory, first over Bob Ashley's striped suits and "Blue" Gene Tyranny's rings, later with the Kronos Quartet's custom designs.

I'm far from expert in matters sartorial (I'm one of those guys who learned all he'd ever know about fashion at the age of 12), but I do have a rule of thumb based on the minimalist principle of the elimination of distractions, and based on the experience of attending the annual recitals of a faculty flutist who inevitably appeared in the same bright floral print: if the clothes are so loud that the audience can't hear the music, then you've gone too far.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thanks, Patty!

Re comments: I use the commenting system I have now because 1) it's Blogger's native system and 2) it's reasonable to believe that Google will be around for a while. There are some interface options but I have no idea if one of the other styles would work better than this one.

Daniel, good criteria.

CK Dexter Haven said...

With a live performance of any kind -- even the most conservative, stiff, and staid classical music concert -- the visual element is a big part of the experience.

Yasuhisa Toyota, acoustician of Walt Disney Concert Hall and other well-regarded venues, always mentions the importance of "psycho-acoustics" -- that is, the way what you see affects what you hear. He usually uses the term with regards to architectural issues: how close someone is to the stage, their sight lines, etc. He has gone on record as saying that having plaster walls would have had the same acoustical properties as wooden walls, but that people perceive a hall clad in wood to sound better -- hence, WDCH has wooden walls.

The same "psycho-acoustic" idea easily applies to what performers wear and how they behave on stage. It affects ones perception of the performance, and therefore, I think it is fair game for a reviewer.

Of course, they should be more articulate and less smarmy than Swed was . . .

CK Dexter Haven said...

Oh, and for the record:
I'm much more into blondes and red-heads who wear Christian Louboutin, so Ms. Wang is a little out of my wheel house . . . that said, I thought she looked pretty hot in that picture.

Unknown said...

Two things:
1. Concert experiences are both aural and visual. Although it's no longer unusual, no one had any problem with critics mentioning orchestral dress when they first began offering what the L.A. Philharmonic calls "Casual Friday" concerts. Likewise, many people have commented on Gustavo Dudamel's curly hair. What you see on stage is part of the evening and what you see can have an impact on the overall experience.
2. When Yuja Wang came onstage at the Bowl, there were audible gasps from the audience. I mentioned the dress in my review (not to the extent that Mark did) in part because of the audience reaction. It was part of the evening and, I thought, worth noting.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I normally don't allow anonymous commenting, but the above is a legitimate comment. Might I ask who you are, Unknown?

Bill said...

Ms. Wang's attire may garner some press attention now, but in the long run, it may backfire on her. Like it or not, there are plenty of people who will reflexively refuse to take her seriously, Twenty years down the road, when (as you note) she'll need to dress more conservatively, those people will remember her as "the pianist who wore that dress", and they still won't take her seriously.

Lisa Hirsch said...

ExACTly. It's like Thibaudet and his red socks, only with more skin.