The Association of British Orchestras conference I went to
was held in Newcastle, a lively, thriving city. Or pair of cities—it promotes
itself as NewcastleGateshead, Gateshead being a sister city right across the
River Tyne. I happened to spend time with two people from the UK the day before
I left, and both of them raved about how fine a place it is.
And I could see that for myself. I had a hairraising
connection between two of the three flights I had to take, to get to Newcastle,
and while I managed to get to the plane on time, my luggage didn’t. So I had the
pleasure of walking through Newcastle, looking for a chemist’s (as they say over
there), to buy some toiletries. It’s clearly a lively town; you can tell just
from looking at the people and the shops, not to mention the life sciences
center and the fabulous performing arts facility, the Sage Gateshead.
Which brings me to the Northern Sinfonia, the local
orchestra. They play in the Sage Gateshead’s main concert hall, which seats
1700, and is airy, modern, comfortable, but also has an easy elegance, and
sounds terrific. And the musicians, almost all (if not absolutely all of them)
fairly young, dress in a way that fits both the hall and the lively cities. They
wear black—without tails or fancy dresses, without even jackets or ties for the
men, if I remember correctly. I asked Anthony Sargent, who runs the facility, if
the orchestra always dresses this way, and he said they did, even when the Queen
came to a concert a month or so ago.
And that did it. As far as I’m concerned, I never want to
see an orchestra wear tails again. The Northern Sinfonia looked so crisp, so
alert, so contemporary, and at the same time so friendly…who wouldn’t want to
see musicians dressed like that? Of course, their youth fit their outfits, or
their clothes fit their youth. An older orchestra, or one less visibly enjoying
itself, might have looked out of place wearing what the Northern Sinfonia wore.
Something else to think about: the orchestra has a
late-evening new music series, which apparently attracts a sizeable young
audience. Obviously it wouldn’t make any sense to wear tails for that. But by
wearing (as I’ll guess they do) the same clothes for the new music concerts and
for their regular gigs, they help build their brand, and help make people who
come to the new music shows feel comfortable if they come to the main events.
The concert seemed well attended. The audience wasn’t
notably old, and really seems to love the orchestra. I know it’s not quite so
simple here in America; I’m sure that older subscribers might well hate it if
orchestras started dressing more informally. But it’s got to happen sometime. Do
orchestras want to look like they come from some high-church dreamland, or do
they want to be part of the world their future audience lives in?