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.”