Dress code clarity

One reader thought I wanted orchestras to still wear formal dress when they play standard repertoire. In an earlier post on concert dress, I’d talked about new music groups dressing informally. Then at the end, I added this: “New music concerts tend to be informal, of course. Their audience tends to dress casually. What you’d wear to play standard repertoire in a formal concert hall for a dressed-up audience — that’s another story.” I hope it’s clear I didn’t mean this wasn’t a story that should ever be told. It’s just a more complex question. The audience dresses up more — far more — than a new-music audience does. The musicians are more conservative. Orchestra managers might be afraid to alienate the conservative core of their audience. Conductors might not like it. Etc.

But on this question, I got two good comments, well worth passing on. One is from our own Sam Bergman, news editor of ArtsJournal, and, not so incidentally, a violist with the Minnesota Orchestra:

My orchestra, like another you mentioned, does the black-pant-colored-top for our Casual Classics series, and I agree that it’s the only successful casual look I’ve seen an orchestra adopt. (Incidentally, our dress code stipulates that we cannot wear a black top for those concerts, so there is no weakening of fun.) Still, whenever I’ve been a part of a “traditional” orchestra that tries something other than the penguin suits for our subscription concerts, the letters from our subscribers came rolling in. There’s such a desperate desire not to weaken the fan base at a time when, let’s face it, they’re all we’ve got and we haven’t found any tried-and-true ways of bringing in new audience, that I doubt we’ll see any change in the dress code until the overall financial situation of American orchestras improves.

That having been said, I believe it will improve, that the current “crisis” is way overblown, and that the next time we see an extended run of “good years,” you’ll also see orchestras beginning to abandon the tuxes. And I, for one, will be very happy. (My first choice of alternate dress would be turtlenecks, but that’s just because they’re the most comfortable thing I can imagine playing in…)

And from Drew McManus, horn player, entrepreneur, and general all-around music whirlwind, came this:

Tuxedos just keep the mass audience away that would otherwise be interested in giving classical music concerts a chance.  After all, the only reason orchestras wear tuxedos is because they had to back in the 1800’s.…

Why not have a competition among designers to create a new ‘public friendly’ concert dress for the performers? They should get input from players as to comfort, movement that facilitates playing (I know I hate playing my horn in a tux), and repetitive ‘wearability’ (washing machines and dryers). Every time I’ve pitched that idea to an orchestra executive all I get is reasons why it won’t work or why the current audience would hate it.

Well, I don’t hate the idea. A competition could be pretty wonderful — it’d get good publicity, as well as (we hope) producing something the musicians would want to wear.

But input from the players is important. Late in the ’80s, I served informally as a consultant on the Grammys. The producer wanted to have a full orchestra, and called me, out of the proverbial blue, to ask if I thought that would work. (I was pop music critic for the L.A. Herald-Examiner, and hadn’t hidden my classical background.) Thinking fast, I told him that if he added saxes and a rhythm section, he could think of the orchestra as a big band with strings, and then it would work with everything.

He really made it go. He opened the show, I remember, with Whitney Houston, singing with the full orchestra behind her. And if I remember correctly, he later used the orchestra (minus the saxes and rhythm section) to accompany Leontyne Price. It all came off wonderfully.

There was just one problem. He didn’t want the orchestra in formal dress, so he had clothes designed, which looked classy, but with an appropriate touch of flash. And the players (or so the Grammys’ music director told me) complained, saying the new creations didn’t leave them free to move.

So any new design has to be carefully thought out. Don’t think, though, that orchestras aren’t pondering this. Ideas for more relaxed concert dress have been floated, I know, at two of the Big Five orchestras, and doubtless there are more cases I haven’t heard of.

And one last example from recent experience. Last week, I saw the American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. For those who don’t know it, this is an expert group that’s been playing American music, much of it new or recent, in Carnegie Hall since the ’70s. Dennis Russell Davies used to be music director; now it’s Steven Sloane, who’s quite good. The musicians are some of the best in New York, and to judge from concerts I’ve heard over the years, they’re one of the best orchestras in America.

Anyhow, they were wearing black for the concert, but not formal black. I didn’t see a tie of any color on stage, though I can’t guarantee that I looked at every male musician. With everyone in black, they looked unified, sharp, but also not too formal. Seemed exactly right, and something orchestras playing standard pieces could easily adopt.

Though there was just one problem. One player, sitting on the outside of the first violins, wore a black velvet dress that was probably stunning close up. From the audience, though, it was so much blacker than the other outfits on stage that it stood out — showing that even something as simple as an all-black dress code needs some policing.

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