Dress code

Jennifer Gersten, writing for VAN magazine, explores the clothing that classical musicians wear in performance, the physical and psychic challenges of playing in long-standard black formal wear, and interesting recent innovations by fashion designers such as Jenny Lai, the focus of Gersten’s article.

“There’s a part of me that respects the restraints and likes the formality and the expectations” of classical-music performance, says Lai, who was a violist before she became a designer. “I’m always trying to find a balance between something that’s recognizable and something that allows the unrecognizable to happen.”

Clothing the Future

Playing instruments that require significant, sometimes awkward, physical movement – strings, trombone, harp, percussion – in formal dress is constricting. Try sawing wood or raking leaves in a tuxedo. So why do musicians dress that way?

Tradition: European classical music was born in the courts of kings, dukes and princes of the church. Musicians were servants, wearing uniforms that denoted their roles in a hierarchy typically organized like a military unit. (Some, indeed, doubled as military bandsmen.) Ease of movement was outweighed by appearance, especially for servants working in the presence of lords and ladies, and musicians were expected to be as formally and uniformly outfitted as footmen or carriage drivers.

The tradition has lingered long after musicales in the ducal court gave way to public performances. Like black-tied waiters in high-end restaurants, orchestra musicians are formally uniformed in concert. (For the Richmond Symphony’s mainstage programs, the men wear white tie and tails.)

Uniform appearance is a visual cue that the musicians are an ensemble, engaged in collective rather than individual activity. And as the uniforms are black – the absence of color – their look presents less visual distraction from the music.

Dressing individualistically is not a taboo for solo performers. The combination of “look at me” and “listen to me” was established by operatic divas singing in concerts and recitals, and female instrumental soloists have followed that lead, typically wearing something like a ball gown. (There’s a downside: How many times have you heard a fellow concertgoer comment on her gown rather than her musicianship?) More recently, male soloists and conductors have ditched tuxedos in favor of less elaborate attire that’s more compatible with physical activity.

I’ve long thought that orchestra musicians should dress like fashionable Italians, looking good without quite dressing up, wearing reasonably loose-fitting but still-shapely shirts and trousers, in black or another dark, neutral shade. Such a look makes an impression while also accommodating the physicality of music-making, especially for musicians whose playing involves a lot of arm and shoulder work.

Those who have to work in formal dress, if they’re smart and can afford it, have good tailors to alter garments for comfort and ease of movement. When I buy a shirt that I’ll wear with a necktie, I choose one that’s a half-size too large in the collar; I’ll bet a lot of male musicians do the same with their tuxedo shirts.

Jenny Lai and other designers making bespoke outfits are too pricey for artists whose incomes haven’t reached six figures. Even prominent soloists earning generous fees have to balance spending on clothing with buying and maintaining their instruments, most of which cost a lot more than even the most exclusive designer’s garb, and managing the cost of living in the typically expensive places that are centers of high culture.

Some orchestras and ensembles have made the move into semi-formal concert attire. Early music groups are rarely seen in formal dress (let alone frilly shirts and periwigs, lest period-authenticity cross the line into distraction and unintended comedy). Chamber groups and ensembles that focus on modern and contemporary music increasingly go for an informally dressy look. Hardcore avant-gardists perform in jeans, T-shirts and hoodies.

Most symphony orchestras, however, continue to be dressed for a gentrified night out in 1890. Visually complementary to Brahms or Tchaikovsky, I suppose, but increasingly dissonant to the eye as they play more recent repertory. In newer music, much of which is more technically demanding and physically strenuous, antique garb makes it still more difficult to play.

Orchestras are now putting a lot of effort into making their art form relevant in the 21st century. One of the easiest and least expensive updates would be a change of dress code.

Long-time concertgoers might complain; but they should look around them on symphony night. How many men still wear suits and ties? How many women still wear dresses? Oh, and how many of those coveted younger patrons, told they should dress up to go the symphony, look (and undoubtedly feel) out of their element, for no good reason?

For better or worse, we live in a time of comfortable clothing. (Better because it’s comfortable; worse because a lot of it isn’t fit to be worn in public, at least as it’s worn by much of the public.) Most employers no longer expect their workforce to wear clothes that impede physically active work. Not many houses of worship still expect congregants to dress up. Even the most uniformed in society, in the military and law enforcement, have different uniforms for parade and work.

While there’s something to be said for performers looking better than or different from their audiences, they needn’t be stuck in clothing from a distant past.

Sexes at the symphony

For the first time in the New York Philharmonic’s 180-year history, its roster of musicians is majority-female: 45 are women, 44 are men.

“It’s a sea change,” Cynthia Phelps, the orchestra’s principal violist, told The New York Times’ Javier C. Hernández. “This has been a hard-won, long battle, and it continues to be.” In 1976, the philharmonic had five female players; in 1992, there were 29.

Currently, there are 16 vacancies on the roster, so the orchestra’s gender parity may change; but 10 of the last 12 musicians it hired are women, who are “winning these positions fair and square,” said Deborah Borda, the philharmonic’s president and chief executive:

Although “still substantially outnumbered by men in most elite ensembles, including in Boston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles,” Hernández notes, “[w]omen now make up roughly half of orchestra players nationwide.”

That was reflected in the ensemble onstage at the Richmond Symphony’s most recent mainstage concerts. Among 76 players, there were 37 women and 39 men, according to the roster listed in the program booklet.

Of the 22 violinists, three were male: the concertmaster, associate concertmaster and one section player. (The orchestra’s violin and viola sections have been predominantly female for years.) One woman played in the long-all-male percussion section. The flutists and the harpist – historically, the gender barrier-breakers in orchestras – were all women. The brass players, timpanist, pianist and saxophonist were all men.

For many of its performances, the symphony hires substitute players and musicians needed for extra parts, so the proportions change from one program to the next.

The orchestra’s music director, associate conductor and executive director are women. Among its 17 currently designated section principals and single chairs (timpani, piano, tuba, harp), five are women, leading the second-violin, viola, flute and oboe sections, plus the harpist.

However this factoid may figure in the near-future of US orchestras: At Miami’s New World Symphony, the elite post-graduate “orchestral academy,” many of whose musicians move on to their first full-time gigs at orchestras the size and caliber of Richmond’s, 45 male and 38 female “fellows” (a terminological lagging indicator of academic gender-sensitivity) are pictured this season on its website (http://www.nws.edu/about/fellows/).

Ned Rorem (1923-2022)

Ned Rorem, the composer and writer who was one of the most prolific and provocative figures in American classical music, has died at 99.

As a composer, Rorem was best-known for his hundreds of art-songs, but he attracted wider notoriety for a series of candid and revealing diaries.

His vocal music, in addition to songs, includes a dozen operas and dozens of choral works. Rorem also produced three symphonies and numerous chamber works and pieces for piano and organ. His “Air Music: Ten Etudes for Orchestra” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1976.

An Indiana native initially trained as a pianist, Rorem was a graduate of Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied with Gian-Carlo Menotti, and the Juilliard School in New York. He also counted Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copland among his teachers and mentors.

Rorem, who was gay, filled his diaries with explicit accounts of his sexual encounters and gossip about prominent acquaintances, as well as his opinions on composers and musicians. He also wrote several books of more substantive music criticism.

A longtime teacher at Curtis Institute, Rorem served as president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters from 2000 to 2003.

An obituary by Tim Page for The Washington Post:


ENO chairman: London or bust


Slipped Disc’s Norman Lebrecht reports that Harry Brünjes, chairman of the English National Opera, said the company will shut down in April rather than move from London to Manchester, a condition that Arts Council England set for continued support.

“There is a lot of discussion around relocation to Manchester, and we have got to flatten that immediately,” Brünjes told British parliamentarians. “There is no relocation. This is closing ENO down. This is losing 600 jobs from London of talented and devoted and able people across all departments.”

ENO latest: Chairman says company will close in April

Arts Council England, whose grants budget comes from government appropriations and proceeds from the Britain’s National Lottery, followed government guidance to redirect money from London to locations elsewhere in the country. The ENO stands to lose £12.6 million (about $14.2 million) if it stays in London.

UPDATE (Nov. 19): From an editorial on the arts council’s funding decisions in The Guardian: “The task of keeping culture alive in embattled times rests on a delicate balancing act: [I]t needs to enrich lives and entertain, but also to contribute to the economy by creating jobs, attracting tourists and generating money for other businesses. Laudable though the new priorities may be in many ways, there is a danger that, in solving one problem, they will create others – the emasculation of institutions, the dispersal of creative communities – that will become irreparable, and not just in London.”

More on this subject in a Nov. 5 post: https://letterv.blog/2022/11/05/leveling-up-uk-arts-grants-hit-london/

Boston’s H+H taps Jonathan Cohen

Jonathan Cohen has been named the next artistic director of the Handel & Haydn Society of Boston.

Cohen, who will begin his Boston tenure next season, is a 44-year-old British cellist, harpsichordist and conductor. He also directs the Canadian ensemble Les Violons du Roy and Britain’s Arcangelo, and is an artistic partner of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

The Handel & Haydn Society, an orchestra and chorus that nowadays goes by the nickname H+H, is this country’s oldest permanent musical ensemble; it gave its first performance on Christmas Day in 1815. It presented the US premieres of Handel’s “Messiah” in 1818, Haydn’s “The Creation” in 1819 and Verdi’s Requiem in 1878.

Since the 1960s, H+H has been a leading exponent of historically informed performance in the US.

Cohen, who will be the ensemble’s 15th artistic director, continues a 36-year run of British conductors on its podium, following Harry Christophers (2009-22), Grant Llewellyn (2001-06) and Christopher Hogwood (1986-2001).

Review: Richmond Symphony

Valentina Peleggi conducting
with Alexandra Dariescu, piano
Nov. 12, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

When Allan Kozinn, the longtime music critic of The New York Times, left the city and resettled in Portland, ME, the local newspaper persuaded him to review concerts by the Portland Symphony. A letdown after years of hearing the world’s finest orchestras? Less than might be expected.

“The standard of musical education is extraordinarily high in the United States these days, and young players with polished techniques are pouring out of conservatories and finding jobs in orchestras everywhere,” Kozinn wrote in 2015 in the Portland Press Herald (http://www.pressherald.com/2015/08/30/music-critic-allan-kozinn-finds-a-home-in-portland/). “So it should not be surprising to find (or, for that matter, to expect) that the performance level of a regional orchestra is quite high.”

Kozinn’s observation was borne out in the first of two weekend performances by the Richmond Symphony of excerpts from Sergei Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet.” I’m not exaggerating or playing hometown booster in rating it as not just high-quality but up to the standards of a major-league orchestra in peak form.

Instead of using one of the composer’s concert suites from the 2½-hour ballet score, Valentina Peleggi, the orchestra’s music director, selected a sequence of seven scenes that reflected Shakespeare’s storyline and traced a satisfying musical and emotional arc.

Peleggi was audibly attuned to this music’s dramatic potency, contrast of moods and wide range of tone colors and emotive effects. So were the symphony musicians, who played with both power and focus.

Balances among sections were consistently right; solos were characterful and well-voiced in both narrative and orchestral contexts; and Prokofiev’s sonorities, from glaring to bittersweet, earthy to otherworldly, were realized as well as I ever expect to hear them.

The Romanian-born, British-based pianist Alexandra Dariescu, featured in Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, turned in a performance of sonic brilliance and dazzling technique, playing the Grieg as a virtuoso showpiece.

Dariescu was less persuasive in her treatment of the folk-inflected tunefulness and dancing quality at the heart of this score. Rhythmic passages sounded metrical and keyboard figurations often brittle, while lyrical themes, outside those of the central adagio, didn’t sing as they should.

Peleggi’s crafting of the orchestral accompaniment softened some of the edges of the pianist’s performance.

The program opened with the rarely heard “Preludio Sinfonico” by Giacomo Puccini. Written when he was a 24-year-old student at the Milan Conservatory, the piece pre-echoes the mature, operatic Puccini in its passionate melodic quality and his ear for drama in orchestration as well as vocal writing.

Peleggi and the orchestra cast the piece as a miniature opera without words. Puccini evidently heard it that way, as he recycled some of this music in his early operas.

In both the Grieg and Puccini, the orchestra’s brass choir overbalanced strings, possibly a consequence of the brasses’ placement on high risers, physically and sonically looming over the rest of the orchestra. Imbalance was not a problem in the Prokofiev, whose string sound is generally more pointed and assertive than the more mellow, rounded tone of romantic orchestral string writing.

The symphony’s brass players are more accomplished in ensemble and aligned in collective sonority than at any time in the orchestra’s history; but in this hall, in music of the romantic era, they are too often too loud. At least that’s what I’m hearing from the perspective of a balcony seat.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Nov. 13 at the Carpenter Theatre of Dominion Energy Center, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $15-$85. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX); http://richmondsymphony.com

‘Come for tea, my people’

Writing for VAN magazine last December, Benjamin Poore, a singer in London’s Philharmonia Chorus, celebrated both the Englishness and the universality of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah.”

George Bernard Shaw’s observation that “Messiah” represents “the nearest sensation to the elevation of the Host known to the English Protestants” is borne out in many performances that “are less concerts than rituals,” Poore wrote, coming across as “dour, featureless spectacle . . . a clapped-out piece, from a clapped-out tradition, for clapped-out singers.”

Whether performers leave it fossilized in Anglican amber or “renew their relationship with the piece every time” – the goal of Philharmonia chorusmaster Gavin Carr – the oratorio is for Poore “an omnipresent old friend . . . that brings together all kinds of different musicians, a crossroads where amateurs get to share the stage with professional[s].”

It also can be a crossroads of belief. Handel’s title is “Messiah,” not “The Messiah.” “The lack of a definite article is key,” Poore wrote. “The work isn’t necessarily bound to one particular messiah, and this vagueness opens an imaginative door to all sorts of audiences, both secular and religious, freeing them to put their own experiences into the work.”

However variably it may be sung and played, “Messiah” is “about communities as much as it is for them,” in Poore’s view – “music of adulation and reflection” that also offers “comfort, warmth, reassurance, and the promise of hospitality.”

I Know, But: Handel’s “Messiah”

A parting shot against fiddle bows

On Slipped Disc, Norman Lebrecht reports that Jair Bolsonaro, defeated last week in his bid for re-election as president of Brazil, has called on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora to outlaw trade in pernambuco, the wood of choice for violin bows.

Conductor Simon Rattle and cellist Yo-Yo Ma are leading a campaign against a ban.

“Bow makers say only 200 trees a year are affected and they have taken measures to renew the plantations,” Lebrecht writes. “Why the anti-environment Bolsonaro is pursuing this measure is unknown.”

Rattle leads musicians in outcry against Brazil ban on wood for bows

‘I’ve gotten pretty old, but I don’t think about it’

Herbert Blomstedt, at 95 the oldest conductor still active on the international circuit, looks back on a career of nearly 70 years, on being one of the last living ear-witnesses to podium “demigods” of the past such as Arturo Toscanini and Wilhelm Furtwängler, on his selectivity in choosing what to conduct, and on his aversion to interpretative exaggeration.

“Many of my colleagues have the ambition and the desire to play everything, because they think otherwise they wouldn’t be a ‘complete’ conductor. [They play] a little bit from every style. That’s understandable, but it’s not my goal. I play what I find most deep,” he tells VAN magazine’s Harmut Welscher: 

Holding the Center

Eastern encores

Three Notch’d Road’s “Eastern Exotic” program, reviewed in the previous post, brought to mind another early music group’s exploration of Eastern Europe folk music: Ensemble Caprice’s recordings of pieces from Collection Uhrovska, an 18th-century manuscript that preserves traditional songs and dances from Slavic, Jewish, Hungarian, Romanian and Romani (gypsy) sources.

Matthias Maute, the flutist and recorder player who leads the Montreal-based ensemble, made two discs with his arrangements of Uhrovska selections performed alongside works by Georg Philipp Telemann (Analekta 29919) and Antonio Vivaldi (Analekta 29912).

Cool album covers by Marianne Chevalier, intoxicating music.

Some samples, with singer Carmen Genest’s haunting rendition of “Ach ma myla” and violinist David Greenberg’s jaw-dropping introduction/cadenza in “Visel som.”