It’s summertime, so The Classical Beat is focusing on the lighter side of classical music: Broadway musicals, pops concerts, and fashion. Today it’s fashion’s turn. Specifically, the turn of Yuja Wang, the pianist whose dress at a concert last week at the Hollywood Bowl has given rise to considerable attention.
Should critics review the dress? Should we comment on how classical stars look? On the one hand, appearance has no bearing on how an artist sounds sounds. On the other hand, appearance sends a message. Christoph Eschenbach’s Nehru-style jackets are a deliberate step away from the tradition-bound formality of a conductor’s tails, and lots of younger conductors have followed suit, and it’s certainly fair to comment on that when it seems warranted. (Just a few weeks ago, I observed that a white jacket sported by the conductor Pietari Inkinen, in his NSO debut, made him look like an impassioned pharmacist.) And plenty of classical artists are now playing around, more and more deliberately, with the way they look. The violinist Hahn-Bin, and the organist Cameron Carpenter, are two artists for whom image, often unconvential image, is a big part of the package.
There’s a third factor at play, though, when it comes to talking about women’s clothes in this field. Men have a uniform: they either don formal wear or daringly (I am being heavily sarcastic here) eschew it.* Women do not have a comparable uniform, in part because women’s fashions are more varied and in part because women didn’t play a major role in classical performance in the years when these traditions were being codified. Yes, there were a handful of soloists; but for years, there were few women (if any) in major symphony orchestras, and virtually no female conductors; and female orchestra players and conductors still have to contend with the issue of what they should be wearing on a regular basis.
Above: Yuja Wang shows that short skirts and stellar Scriabin are not incompatible at last year’s Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. Edited to add: Note that this is not the dress she wore at the Hollywood Bowl.
The criticism of women’s clothing on stage has been a red flag for me ever since Eve Queler said that when she started conducting in the late 1960s, her clothing so dominated her reviews that one critic complained that a zipper glinting on the back of her evening gown was distracting. This is obvious sexism. Unfortunately, the tenor of the discussion of women’s attire in this field has retained more than a hint of this sexist tone ever since. What “should” women wear on the concert stage? What is “appropriate”? A general rule of thumb appears to be that if it’s sexy, it’s probably not good -- indeed, it almost automatically falls into the realm of cheesy pop-style classical crossover. And if it’s revealing, it’s worthy of a lot of comment. (I wrote about this phenomenon in a New York Times article in 2004.)
My particular beef this week is with Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times, who was evidently shocked, or titillated, by the dress Yuja Wang wore for her Hollywood Bowl appearance on August 3.
“Her dress Tuesday was so short and tight,” he wrote, “that had there been any less of it, the Bowl might have been forced to restrict admission to any music lover under 18 not accompanied by an adult. Had her heels been any higher, walking, to say nothing of her sensitive pedaling, would have been unfeasible.” This review, and the dress that inspired it, have prompted several responses, including a post on the blog Life’s a Pitch that questions whether Wang should wear such a dress, and equates her attire with the fashion choices of Lady Gaga and Madonna.
Let’s have a reality check for a minute. Yes, the dress is short, tight, and revealing. But in the real world — the world outside classical music’s still-prurient bubble — this is not unusual attire for a young rising starlet in the public eye. For the sake of comparison — or education — go to the blog Tom and Lorenzo to observe what other young women about Yuja Wang’s age wore at a Hollywood event that took place a few days after Wang’s concert. You can criticize these women for their fashion choices; you can like or dislike what they’re wearing; but these dresses and shoes are not inherently shocking — let alone a cause for restricting admission to those under 18. (Some of the women may be under 18 themselves.) Yuja Wang is simply working with designers, the way that other attractive stars her age do — and the way that plenty of opera divas always have, from Renee Fleming’s specially-designed gowns by John Galliano, Christian Lacroix and Karl Lagerfeld for her Metropolitan Opera opening in 2008 to Anna Netrebko’s sometimes more unfortunate but often equally revealing options. This field should at least recognize this, rather than drawing up our skirts in horror as if she’s doing something patently unusual.
Some aver that a classical music performance demands a decorum that a Hollywood red-carpet event doesn’t. I don’t buy that argument; I love formality at times, but wish there were more variety in classical music presentation (and this is something that many presenters are actively working on). But even if you do think that classical music calls for restraint, you can hardly claim that the Hollywood Bowl is exactly a bastion of decorum, or even of good taste. Wang, furthermore, was performing one of the flashiest concertos in the repertory, the Rachmaninoff 3. From some points of view, her dress was perfectly suited to the occasion.
The fact that showing skin still occasions comment in the classical music world — and some commenters on “Life’s a Pitch” have piled onto Wang with a sanctimoniousness I find downright offensive — is a mark to me of how far classical music remains isolated from what’s going on in the rest of society. We say we want younger audiences, and we wring our hands over classical music’s possible demise; and yet when a young classical music star does something that would be completely normal in any other entertainment field, we pounce on it as being extreme, attention-getting, questionable.
I’m not saying critics shouldn’t mention performers’ clothes. I would probably have mentioned the dress too. But one of a critic’s jobs is providing reasonable context, and to me the tone of this particular discussion comes far too close to a schoolmarmish wagging of the finger about what we do and don’t do in the classical temple. This is not only not helpful to Wang; it’s unhelpful to us.
To Mark Swed’s credit, his review went on to praise Wang’s playing. But he, and all of us, should understand that, rather than shutting the doors to the under-18 set, Wang’s manner (she’s a refreshingly normal, down-to-earth young woman) and attire — as well as her remarkable talent — represent some of the best chances we have of getting those under-18-year-olds into the concert hall to begin with.
* (I am also making daring use of the word “eschew,” which is forbidden by some publications as being snooty. I would argue that its use is appropriate here, since classical music’s entire attitude toward this issue is ridiculously snooty itself.)