Went with friends to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra some days ago, in its summer residence in nearby Saratoga. The guest conductor was Marin Alsop, on loan from the Baltimore Symphony. She is known not only for her talent but also as the first woman to conduct a major American orchestra. The soloist was the violin virtuosa, Sarah Chang, who played the Max Bruch Violin Concerto.
I\’m not going to write about the artistry of these women, however, but about their outfits.
Ms. Alsop wore a gender-neutral cream jacket and black pants that could have fit Toscanini or JLo equally well. And you can see her point. First of all, if you are a conductor, you have to be able to move around a lot, not teeter off the podium in your high heels, and not risk wardrobe malfunctions. If, as happened to Ms. Alsop in Baltimore, your musicians rose in rebellion when your appointment was first announced (they now adore her, and with good reason), you might want to play it safe and minimize your female attributes. On the other hand, if, like Ms. Alsop, you are open about being gay, that outfit might feel just right to you.
Sarah Chang strode on stage in a sensational clinging, blood-red dress that emphasized her resemblance to the violin she carried. She played with furious drama, kicking her flounces with her feet like a flamenco dancer and doing amazing back bends. She raised her bow arm towards the sky. She flung her yard-long hair about. When, during the rests, she would break off the hairs that had come loose from her bow, I worried that she might accidentally break off some of her own by mistake. Also during the rests, she kept hiking up one of her straps, causing 99% of the audience to worry that a high-culture wardrobe malfunction was in the offing. Fortunately, she had total technical mastery of her outfit as well as her instrument.
Why even write about these women\’s outfits and physical styles? In recent years many young classical musicians of both sexes have abandoned the standard uniform of tails or dark dress in favor of more liberated–and often Liberace-like–clothing. As far as extravagant physical mannerisms, there is honorable precedent for them. In the 19th century, Liszt looked like a demon at the keyboard, whereas violinists like Paganini and Sarasate were said to be demons. The utterly discreet and very short Casals groaned audibly while playing like an angel. And Itzak Perlman, who has to play sitting down because of childhood polio, puts more drama into his facial expressions than the entire cast of a silent movie.
I take it as a sign of progress that Sarah Chang amazes audiences with her dresses and gyrations, and that Marin Alsop feels free to wear what feels comfortable to her. It made me happy to see the maestra and the virtuosa, at the extreme opposite poles of female attire, on stage with that Amazon River of an orchestra
behind them, making really good music.