Posts Tagged: Fashion

Sins sartorial

Readers of my blog will know that I was just in Chicago this past weekend giving talks for the CSO’s Rachmaninoff/Shostakovich concerts.  What they won’t know, unless they actually attended the concerts themselves, and what I am committed to exposing right now, is that the soloist, one “Kirill Gerstein“, showed up wearing the least appropriate attire possible.  See below:

Do you see That, what he is wearing in that photo?  Yes that, THAT exact outfit (OK fine, plus a black suit jacket) is exactly what he wore to play a concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  No tie, no tails, just all black, open-collar.  Many of Mr. Gerstein’s bios mention that he has extensive experience in jazz as well as classical music.  Well, if that be true, he should sure as hell be able to tell the difference between a cocktail lounge and the stage of Orchestra Hall!

I’ve ranted about men’s fashion in the classical music industry many times before, and certainly Mr. Gerstein is not the only offender.  Mr. Gerstein is merely representative of a larger problem, namely that soloists and conductors seem to think that their individuality stems from their wardrobe rather than their musicianship.  And maybe with some of these artists, that is the case.  But look at our great forbears in the field:

Mssrs. Heifetz, Rubinstein and Giulini were all perfectly content to dress in uniform.  And would we say that these gentlemen were lacking in individual style?  Quite to the contrary!  They each exuded style and grace and they were positively dripping with musicality.  And yet, like other great performers of yesteryear, these men were perfectly content to make their public statements with their music rather than with their wardrobe.

When conductors and soloists do dress in uniform with the orchestra, it sends an important message to the members of the ensemble: we’re in this together.  It shows the orchestra members that you are not so arrogant that you must have some vulgar costume to draw attention towards yourself – rather, you are prepared for the exalted business of making music.  You are willing to abide by the same code as the rest of the musicians in front of you in order to share in this experience.

And to the Charlie Roses of the world: looking purposefully unkempt (i.e. CR’s infamous un-buttoned/cuff-linked shirt sleeves) takes just as much effort as looking presentable.  We’re on to you.

Men of the musical world: glam it up!  GLAM IT UP!!!

Mr. Gerstein: on behalf of ticket-holders everywhere, when we pay upwards of $100 both to hear and to see you perform, we expect you to look presentable.  Put on a tie for goodness’ sake.

What a difference a year and a half made…

I had a really interesting and largely satisfying concert experience this weekend, so I’d like to pause for a short rumination on the life of a composer/conductor.

This weekend, for an Ad Hoc concert at Indiana U., I performed a piece of mine called “3 Waltz Scenes”. As the name “Ad Hoc” would suggest, this sort of concert is thrown together however possible — the conductor lures players to the few allotted rehearsals with junk food and hopes that the opportunity to play decent repertoire with friends will be enough to keep them there. These things are a grudging part of student life and somehow they usually come off decently.

I had been wanting to put some of my own music on an Ad Hoc for a while (this is my second year as a master’s student at IU) and had thought about writing something new for one of these concerts. That’s my usual M.O. — I’m very much an “occasional” composer, i.e. one who writes music for particular occasions (admittedly, I’m also one who only composes occasionally, these days).

I decided, however, to trot out an older piece of mine, which I composed in the spring of ’08, and which had only been played once. The second performance of a piece has so many advantages: the music is already written, the parts are already fixed, and it affords a chance to make any corrections or improvements to the original. It’s also a right of passage for the music itself — the piece has survived its infancy and is moving on to the next phase of its life (even if it’s me who has to drag it kicking and screaming to it’s birthday party).

The performance this weekend was a major improvement on the first one in many ways, partially because of the above reasons, partially because I was working with higher-level musicians, but also because of my own development as a performer and musician. Let’s take a brief glance into history, shall we? Here’s a clip from the première:

and here’s the same segment from the concert two days ago:

So, obviously, there are a lot of differences, the main one being Tempo.  Isn’t a composer supposed to know his own tempo?  In the earlier performance, the tempo is 100 to the dotted quarter.  A year and a half later, I conducted the same music at 116.  That’s four clicks of the metronome faster — not an inconsequential difference.  Interestingly, the tempo indication that I wrote in the score is dotted quarter = 100.  So, should I go back and change the score?  I’m not sure… because I frankly think my more recent tempo is about a click too fast.  So, it seems like I’ll need another shot at this piece to really get it right.

For me, this kind of point raises a lot of philosophical questions about notated music.  Do I have more authority as the composer of the piece when I’m conducting it than somebody else would?  Especially if my interpretative decisions are so erratic?  If I as a composer am subject to the same human foibles as any other musician, why should I deny other interpreters the leeway that I would grant myself?

I’m reminded of a particular paradox in the music of Bartòk, namely that he would often write timings in his scores, not just timings of the whole piece, but even of the individual sections and phrases.  The paradox is that, if you do the math yourself and multiply the tempo by the number of beats in one of his pieces, you get one timing, if you listen to his own recordings of his music, you get another timing, and 9 times out of 10, both of those will be different than what he’s written on the page!

So what’s a boy to do?  I don’t know.  And probably I can’t know until I’ve gone deeper into my life as an artist.  And who knows, maybe when I get there, I still won’t have any idea.

What I do know is that that gold necktie that I wore back on May 17, 2008 is so gorgeous, and I remember that I drove all the way out to Woodfield Mall to by it specially from Nordstrom’s, and that it cost about 1/4 of my monthly paycheck as a Youth Orchestra Director, and I still think it was totally worth it.  But for whatever reason, I didn’t even think about wearing it for this concert the other day, and can I just say, thank God I didn’t, because how embarrassing would it have been to be wearing the same tie in two videos of the same piece?  I mean, that’s just a little too cutesy, even for me.

Boys like Bow Ties

I don’t need no Wall Street Journal to tell me that bow ties are cool.  In fact, I never thought they were not cool.  So, look how behind the times everyone else is.

I hate how every damn little thing has to be justified by our current economic crisis:

Cardigans, V-necked sweaters and narrow ties are also suddenly popular these days. We’re channeling Paul Newman at a moment when Rambo characters seem to lack the finesse needed to solve our modern challenges.

Oh puleeze… when we start making bow ties out of recycled toilet paper, maybe that will have something to do with our “modern challenges”.

In other fashion news, I saw this little girl today in Targét wearing a bright colored t-shirt that said “Boys like Girls” and I just had to have one for myself!  But then I go online and I find out they’re some kind of punk band.  Ugh, don’t click on that link, it will just play their music… and I made the foolish mistake of clicking while I was listening to the last 30 seconds of the Berg Violin Concerto.  That’s what I get for multi-tasking.

I still kind of want one though… but none of the shirts on their merchandise page are what this little girl had on today.  I remain convinced that her shirt was not a Fan T, but rather just a Statement T.  But now if I wear it, people will think I like this stupid band.

I guess I’ll just have to stick to bow ties.

Vitalis and barbasol

On the subject of male dress for classical concerts

There are, essentially, four options.  From the most formal to the least:

(1) White Tie: a dress coat (i.e. tails); a well-starched white shirt (piqué); cummerbund, suspenders or (preferably) a white piqué vest; black patent leather shoes; and of course, a white piqué bow tie.

(2) Black Tie: black tuxedo, white tuxedo shirt (ruffled or non-), cummerbund or suspenders, black patent leather shoes, black bow tie.

(3) Suits: dark suit (black, grey or, in a real pinch, navy blue… my condolences to the owners of navy blue suits everywhere), white shirt, tie of choice (see below), black shoes.

(4) All Black: the most formal variation being a tuxedo with a black turtleneck underneath.

But definitions will get us only so far.  The question is on which occasions should each of these costumes be worn?  It is with regards to this question that I frequently encounter such pitiable ignorance — or even sheer lack of concern (!)

White Tie is worn by professional orchestras at regular subscription concerts.  It is also worn by guys intent on “tickling pink” their particular dame on a given Saturday night.  In either situation, the gleam from the gentlemen’s torsos casts an intoxicating, radiant shimmer on the proceedings.

Black Tie is worn by community and student orchestras for their regular concerts.  It is also worn by professional orchestras during the summer season, with one particular alteration: white dinner jackets rather than black.

Suits are to be worn at any concert taking place before the evening, or at any evening concert where a slightly less formal atmosphere is desired.  While suits are not nearly as formal as White Tie, they are not such a drop down from Black Tie to render them inappropriate for formal concerts.  They may also be worn by certain (often European) orchestras during their summer seasons.

All Black dress is reserved for two particular situations: new music concerts (where the dress code is interpreted as “dark” and “edgy”) and playing in pit orchestras (more often for musicals than opera).  All black should never be worn during a daytime concert of standard repertoire music; suits are the appropriate garb for such occasions.  The amount of difficulty I have encountered in trying to convince student musicians of this most self-evident of rules defies explanation.

Then comes the all-important question: what does the conductor wear?  I believe I can answer this with one simple word: concordance.  The conductor should simply wear whatever the gentleman of the orchestra are wearing.  This rule applies equally as well to lady conductors as to their gentleman counterparts.

even3Now that the basics have been established, one may consider certain variations and exceptions.  Many conductors use variations in their wardrobe to present an individualized podium presence.  The so-called “Nehru” jacket is a form of attire worn by a great many conductors to show how individual they are.  This can be appropriately worn with an orchestra wearing either White or Black Tie, but not suits.

There is then what I like to call the “Leonard Slatkin”:

white-tie-black-shirtThis is a dress frequently worn by Mr. Slatkin and historically associated with various mafioso types.  A sort of “inverted Black Tie”, this outfit defies easy categorization.  It has a solemn, yet bold overall appearance, and combines the class of a tuxedo with the “attitude” of all black.

I myself have worn this dress on occasion: mainly in pits and at Good Friday services.  

Kudos to Mr. Slatkin for picking up on my trend-setting idea.

The conductor may also opt for various bow tie replacements: simple studs that match one’s cuff links are a popular option, as are a number of alternate collar types that require no tie at all.

A few additional notes: White Tie offers no real chances for individual variation; the basic elements of costume itself offer all the magnificence that a normal imagination could ever desire.  Black Tie offers one chance to stand out: the cuff links.  A suit, on the other hand, has the singular advantage of allowing its wearer considerable room to express himself in the choice of tie.  One important consideration is that, if at all possible, the tie should match the specific character of the music.  I, for example, have worn purple to conduct Dvorak, a somber blue for the Elgar Cello Concerto, and pink for Beethoven’s 1st.

The chance to wear formal attire, specifically tails, was perhaps the principal motivation behind my choice to become a conductor.  Were I to limit my musical activities to composing, dressing up would hardly an option.  Most composers look like total schlubs, including me when I am just sitting around the house writing music.  Case in point:

Mr. Berio, ready for his next Scorsese cameo


Mr. Ligeti, in one of his two (2) outfits (although in his latter years, this may have been reduced to one (1))


Kramer, the minimalist


And of course, the great nineteenth century Russian composer, ZZ Top