BSO-Parsons project gives glimpse into future of the classical concert experience

The first thing that all the involved parties quickly emphasized about the collaboration between Parsons the New School for Design and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is that no one had any idea what to expect, where the partnership might take them or what they might do with the information they gathered. The design teacher, the tech guru, the college deans, the symphony conductor and the students had no clear endgame.

But for the past year, about three dozen students and their mentors have explored the possibility of transforming the way in which classical players dress and the way in which an audience experiences their music. For conductor Marin Alsop, it was a chance to reimagine what it means to go hear — and see — her orchestra.

“I don’t know where it will lead, but I think it’ll be exciting,” enthuses the optimistic conductor.

“It’s a little hard to know where the research will go,” says the fashion dean.

“It’s just a proposal,” cautions the tech whiz.

This project began when Alsop started thinking about how an orchestra exists in the 21st century and what that orchestra might mean to future generations. But instead of her mind fixating on the instruments, the acoustics of a concert hall or the musicians’ repertoire, she was interested in the wardrobe.

“I’ve always noticed how the men in orchestras struggle with tails. It’s a lot of clothing, and it’s quite constricting, and it can get hot. And for the women, it’s hard for them to know what to wear. I was thinking, ‘Where are we headed with an orchestra in the 21st century?’ I don’t want to change the music, but the trappings? We’re wearing the same clothes we were wearing 200 years ago,” Alsop says. “It might be time for an update.”

The student designers were challenged to make the musicians’ clothes more contemporary and relevant. They don’t just want to redesign the garments; they want to rethink them. For example, they want to illustrate the energy output of a drum-beating percussionist and a fast-fingered pianist during a particularly exuberant passage of music. What if the arm movements activated lights or video on a back screen? What if they illuminated the performer’s actual garment? What if they changed the color of the clothes like some giant musical mood ring? What if they could activate some sort of projection on the outside of the venue itself so that passersby could experience the performance taking place inside — making a private, elite experience a public, community one?

Earlier this week in the New School’s carpeted community center, an audience of musicians, academics, students and a curious public came to witness the “What ifs?” With high-concept projects such as this, there tend to be two outcomes: something blissfully weird or something distressingly odd. This, as it turns out, was both.

And, of course, with anything involving technology, there are glitches. About an hour before the performance is to begin, the room — stocked with laptops, glowing motion sensors and myriad imposing cables running across the floor — looks more like a quietly frazzled information-technology department than a concert hall.

“The sensors are on,” says one platinum-haired student to a bearded one staring into a computer screen. “No, they are all on,” he reiterated.

The audience assembles. People are thanked. Introductions begin. And fingers are crossed that everything will work.

What appears to be a catering cart is rolled to the front of the room in preparation for the first performance by two student percussionists from Mannes College the New School for Music, which provided the white mice for this experiment. The cart holds overturned metal bowls, unopened bottles of soda and several terra-cotta flowerpots. These are the instruments. The work: “When Music is Missing, Music Sings.”

The performers are dressed in matching black vintage jackets with sleeves shortened to reveal a reflective spandex undergarment — that doesn’t quite manage to reflect much of anything — to which motion sensors are attached.

As the drummers pound, thump and tap the found objects, what looks vaguely like an animated chartreuse and blue angular bird bounces and wiggles — in time to the rhythm — on a screen behind them. Over and over again. The image is reminiscent of a rudimentary video game — Pac-Man circa 1980. “Well, it’s interesting,” murmurs a woman in the audience to her companion. “That’s all I can really say.”

“I thought the graphics were limited,” Alsop says afterward. “If it’s a limited vocabulary, it can get a little redundant.”

Perspiration and inspiration

The men of the BSO traditionally wear white tie and tails, and the women match their formality with anything from black slacks and chiffon blouses to ankle-length gowns. Everyone manages to look unified but wholly uncomfortable and not so very elegant as buttons strain and seams are tested and fabric gets thinner and shinier as the musicians go through their nightly workout.

Indeed, one of the Mannes students noted that clothes are always an element that has to be managed. “I have a tradition before every recital,” says violinist Katherine Liccardo. “I put on my dress and my heels, and stand in my kitchen and go through the performance.”

The physicality of a classical performance is, perhaps, one of the most surprising aspects of a concert — at least to the uninitiated. Anyone who has ever gone to a rock concert is familiar with the ostentatious labor of the performer. The sweat is so extreme that it becomes part of the overall experience as the musicians dab their brow with towels and then fling them into the crowd. Classical musicians aren’t working up that kind of glow, but still, they toil for their audience.

Sweat became a major concern for the Parsons students, who are not fashion-design students, per se, but rather participants in a program called Integrated Design, which means they think about clothing and its practical and social applications, the technology of attire and sustainability within the industry. After they visited the BSO at work, they thought not only about how they could make all that movement easier but also how they could heighten the audience’s connection to the performer.

“A pianist has a different way of moving his body than a percussionist and a violinist,” says instructor Sabine Seymour, who looks at the integration of technology and design, and is prone to referring to non-technically enhanced garments as analog. The thinking “was to make the musicians part of the musical piece.”

Like ‘wearing pajamas’

The clothes themselves are not futuristic in appearance. Forward-thinking fashion rarely looks like the stuff worn by the crew of the starship Enterprise, the Robinsons of “Lost in Space” or some cyborg out of “Blade Runner.”

When a traditional quintet steps on stage to perform “Moderato, Presto, Molto Adagio, Allegro Brutale,” it’s a reminder that fashion’s aesthetic future actually looks a lot like its past. Designers replaced the sleeves of men’s cotton poplin dress shirts with jersey.

“The performers said it felt like they were wearing pajamas,” notes design instructor Gabi Asfour. The jackets have articulated sleeves with mesh inserts. They look like traditional tails until a cellist reaches forward and his sleeves open like a pair of bellows expanding. The female violinists wear black gowns of Cool Wool — a lightweight wool — and have sheer sleeves of stretch lace and mesh.

This high-concept design project could have been an episode of “Project Runway.” At least that’s how Alsop originally pitched it in a moment of daring, whimsy and a little too much reality television. But how did the conductor of the BSO manage to connect with Joel Towers, the dean of Parsons’ fashion school? Alsop had a fan and supporter in a member of its board of governors. One might think that friend would be someone like board member Sheila Johnson, who is part of the area’s social and philanthropic world. Or one of the other board members who dabble in the universe of fine arts of which classical music is a part. But no, the link in the chain was Tomio Taki, the Japanese fashion mogul who once owned Anne Klein and who launched Donna Karan into the design stratosphere. He’s Alsop’s longtime mentor. And he doesn’t even particularly like classical music.

“I had a string swing band and I played at his wedding at the Pierre,” Alsop says. “I was in my 20s and he helped me start my first orchestra. I wanted to be a conductor, and I decided the only way that was going to happen was to found my own orchestra. So I called him and said, ‘You might think I’m insane, but I want to be a conductor, and I need help building a board . . .’ This guy who barely knew me said, ‘Absolutely.’ He gave me financial support, career advice.”

“He’s a prince of a person.”

Taki helped her found the Concordia Orchestra in 1984. And when she called him about her design idea, he put her in touch with Towers. “This is my area,” Taki says. “I thought it could be an interesting cooperative.”

Alsop told Towers about her “Project Runway” idea. And he said, uh, “No.”

“That’s not how fashion is created. We wanted something serious and meaningful,” Towers says. “The design is successful when it reflects our own cultural beliefs about something.”

So what do we believe about classical music? The current, traditional costuming — so mired in history — suggests that it is a kind of museum experience. And that’s what Alsop wanted to shake. “It should be classical but with an edge. We’re striving for an inspired, transcending experience with the audience,” she says.

A glimpse at the possibilities

At this week’s performance, the audience sits expectantly as students roll out a grand piano wrapped in white muslin. They position it against a white screen. And Mannes student Shulin Guo, who is a junior working on a bachelor’s degree in piano performance, sits down. She is cloaked in a white muslin and satin gown with a pleated cape. During rehearsal, Guo had explained that all the technology can make it a bit more challenging for her to concentrate, but no matter, “it’s really interesting. I can feel something magical happening.”

The lights dim, and she begins to play William Bolcom’s “The Serpent’s Kiss.” Yellow and ivory animated squares fracture like a cubist painting across the piano, the screen and the performer herself. Fuchsia waves flow into orange swirls as her playing crescendos. Slashes of white lights flash along with her staccato rhythms. Green serpents slither and dive around her as the melody rises and falls, quickens and slows. And as she reaches the dramatic finale — the heart-stopping spiral into the deepest, warmest bass notes — black and white brush strokes explode around the room like a Robert Motherwell or Franz Kline canvas being torn to shreds. The crowd cheers. An endgame is revealed. What if?

“I could see doing a late-night contemporary concert with this, doing something more avant-garde,” Alsop says after the applause ends and the audience moves on to cocktails. “I think it would be very, very cool.”

Robin Givhan is a staff writer and the Washington Post fashion critic, covering fashion as a business, as a cultural institution and as pure pleasure.
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