A recent article in the New York Times about a new attempt to make formalwear more comfortable for performing musicians reminded me of one of my favorite gripes – why do we wear this stuff, anyway?
The article is about Kevin Yu, pictured above in one of his “performal” hi-tech tux shirts, made of a stretchable, breathable fabric that has proven very popular – he’s already sold out his first run (at $120 each, by the way).
Kudos to Mr. Yu for taking initiative, being creative and knowing his market – all good. I wish him well, but only in the short term. Why? Because that market shouldn’t exist anymore!
The Times article begins by pointing out that much change has been made in clothing, citing the tweed hiker’s garb and full body wool swimsuits of yesteryear as examples of outdated, uncomfortable victims of progress. It also acknowledges that concert clothes have changed some since the days of Haydn, but not as much. Leonard Bernstein famously tried to dress the New York Philharmonic in Nehru jackets in the late 50’s – it wasn’t well received (not sure why – looks ok to me).
Men in orchestras usually wear white tie and tails, a tradition which dates back more than a century (to the days when there were no women in these groups, by the way). The formal clothes made some sense when the audience wore them too:
This photo (from Wikipedia, I confess) was taken in 1901 at something called a “Liedertafel smoke concert,” “a gathering of men who meet to listen to male choirs or male part songs.” The audience did have some women, seated up in the balcony. This is a pretty archaic setting- you’ve got a segregated audience, all male performers, and smoking (what did the singers think of that, I wonder?).
Along with improvementsin the areas of personnel, seating and air quality, there’s been a lot of changein what the audience wears since then – nowadays, they can look like this:
Maybe it’s time the orchestra caught up!
Recently, I spent a week subbing in the Cincinnati Symphony for their season-opening concerts. On the Saturday night concert, the male players and music director Louis Langree were in the customary tails and white tie. Not playing on the first half, I went out into the hall to listen to the guest soloist, Yefim Bronfman, play Bartok’s Second Piano Concerto. He came out wearing a black suit and shirt, and I’ll bet he was a lot more comfortable than the rest of us.
Many conductors and soloists have ditched their tails, usually in favor of something else black. However, here’s an eye-catching alternative, worn by Kiril Petrenko and his orchestra in Liverpool for a charity benefit:
I really hope Petrenko wears that outfit when he takes over the Berlin Philharmonic next year – now that would be progress!
With all this in mind, I asked my son to design a new outfit for orchestra musicians to wear – here it is:
The yellow shoes are my favorite. In any case, a little more color onstage would liven up orchestra concerts – so let’s hear some suggestions for newconcert clothes, please! Because frankly, right now we’re “dressed to kill” – our appeal to new audiences.
Till next time,