Sunday, October 24, 2021

Sartorial Report, San Francisco Symphony Edition

Davies Symphony Hall
Photo by Lisa Hirsch

An issue that has come up fairly regularly over the last 20 years in discussions of western classical music's accessibility is what orchestral musicians wear on stage during performances. For many many years, the standard was black tails and white tie for men, long black for women, with some orchestras putting restrictions on what exactly "long black" means. (I understand from a FB post by violinist Holly Mulcahy that there are often restrictions about high heels, lace, length of long black (NO ANKLES), whether your forearms show, etc. "Nothing fashionable that you might want to wear" was part of what she said.) This uniformity of dress is intended primarily to focus attention on the music rather than on the musicians themselves. Conductors have always had somewhat more flexibility in dress (Nehru collars, for example) and soloists even more, although female soloists generally have had much more latitude than male soloists. See, for example, photos of Leila Josefowicz playing the violin in concert.

This style sets a particular standard of formality, which is potentially intimidating to people who aren't well-off, don't wear tails or tuxedos, are put off by the degree of formality, and so on. For a lot of people, this style of dress is also heavily coded white, notwithstanding traditions of very formal dress in some Black communities. The style also leads potential audience members to wonder whether they will be welcome if they dress informally. (The answer here is a resounding YES just about anywhere in the United States.)

This season, both San Francisco Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra have decided to go with a less formal style. At SFS, the men are wearing black jackets and black button-down shirts, tie optional; black shoes with black socks. The women are wearing long black, which can include a long dress; long skirt with black top; slacks with black blouse or shirt. I have seen heels of varying heights, varying degrees of low-cut-ness of blouses, varying degrees of forearm showing, lace at the neckline or wrist or forearm. 

I'm fine with this, to be honest; I'd be fine with practically anything on stage short of shorts and bathing suits. It'd be interesting to see what an orchestra would look like and how the audience would respond if everybody dressed like Josefowicz, but I'm certainly not holding my breath. I would be....surprised...if concertmaster Alexander Barantschik turned up in the male equivalent of Josefowicz's dresses, for example. That would be some distance from his artistic personality.

In any event, there were also some individual style changes since the pandemic.
  • Esa-Pekka Salonen has a short, stubbly beard. From where I'm sitting, I needed my binoculars to be sure of this.
  • Principal clarinetist Carey Bell's shoulder-length hair and goatee are back.
  • Principal bassonist Stephen Paulson now has wavy, shoulder-length, white hair and I keep wondering why associate concertmaster Nadya Tichman is sitting with the bassoons. (For pre-pandemic images of Paulson, look here.)


CruzSF said...

On Thursday, I attended my first SFS concert since the pandemic began and I noticed the less formal, all black dress code onstage. I couldn't quite remember what it was like before (an indication that I didn't pay much attention to the way the instrumentalists dressed?). I like it.

Lisa Hirsch said...

There are photos on the SFS web site that show how individual musicians dressed. (And every time I see this, I notice that the roster isn't fully updated. Tim Day and Robin McKee have retired, but their listings are still there. The clarinet section has been updated, though.)

CruzSF said...

Thanks for the pointer to the SFS website. I see that some of the new members are already photographed not wearing tuxedos.