Classical music vs. guitar hero fashion statements

Younger artists adopt pop music auras in search of fans, fame and fortune. Photo: Courtesy Shuman Assoc.

WASHINGTON, January 7, 2014 – Like an increasing number of contemporary young classical artists, rising 22 year-old concert pianist Ji strode purposely onto the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater stage last December for his DC debut recital, attired in a way intended to make a distinctive but unmistakable fashion statement.

The personable, smiling artist was clad entirely in black. No tie. No jacket. But crowned with a buzz-cut and displaying indistinct, olive-green upper arm tats—partially exposed by his short-sleeved black shirt—his appearance also informed us he’s not our father’s kind of classical pianist, to paraphrase that ancient Oldsmobile commercial.

Pianist Ji. (Credit: C. Steiner)

Normally, we don’t bother mentioning concert attire here, although such attire has grown increasingly eccentric—or, shall we say, individualistic?—over the past decade or two.

But, ranging from Ji’s stage garb last week, to Lang-Lang’s colorful sneakers, to the Ahn Trio’s colorful, unpredictable outfits, to Yuja Wang’s impossibly short dresses, to other young artists’ sartorial oddities, there’s clearly an antic sense of youth and fun that’s intentionally embedded in many of these young performers’ onstage wardrobe choices.

And in a way, there is at least in part an admirable, understandable rationale behind this.

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It doesn’t surprise us in the least that today’s rising generation of classical soloists has grown tired of taking a back seat to rock “stars” who make millions while often possessing less skill and talent than a five-year old kid whacking a wooden a trash can lid with a wooden spoon and imagining himself a drummer.

At the same time, some younger concert artists, at the beginning of what they hope will be a career, have duly noted the advantage that accrues to pop entertainers who develop and market a distinctive image.

Typical pop personality marketing employs hairstyle, wardrobe and sometimes makeup to express not only a distinct if manufactured persona, but also attitude and rebellion against being perceived as simply another drab member of an anonymous crowd. In classical attire, this outward rebellion is increasingly manifested by a rejection of the generally accepted, monochromatic concertware donned by soloists—particularly male soloists.

Young concert artists on the make want to stand out and, perhaps, begin to attract members of their own generation to the concert hall. Wearing the standard penguin suit just doesn’t cut it for this crowd any more.

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The less standard and more individualistic, rebellious, or sexy the outfit and outward appearance of the artist, the more likely he or she is to attract concertgoers of more recent generations to attend classical recitals and concerts where the average concert attendee remains ten times more likely to carry a cane than to boast a nose piercing.

The Ahn Trio often arrives on stage in the most colorful outfits imaginable. (Ahn Trio web site)

Our observations are not necessarily intended to slight current fashion trends. But it is worthwhile to observe that even in classical music, updating a 100-year-old marketing plan might be a viable notion if classical performers, whether soloists or ensembles, wish to survive beyond 2020 in the context of our still badly strained economy.

If symphony orchestras, opera companies and classical soloists can’t do a better job selling their classical merchandise to rising generations, it won’t be long before live performances by first-class artists of the music that lies at the heart of our cultural heritage will become a thing of the past for more and more Western audiences.

This is particularly true in the U.S. where real music education and appreciation has been gradually withdrawn from the core curricula of the majority of elementary, middle, and high schools, partially due to economics and partially due to leftist dogma that deems much of Western culture as hegemonic, depraved and oppressive and strives to remove it from cultural consideration.

Admirably, many orchestras and opera companies in those towns and cities that can still support them have attempted to fill this educational and cultural gap at least partially through outreach programs. Even so, they are still attempting to recruit younger generations whose notions as to what’s good and what’s bad in music have been crafted less by knowledge and understanding than by high-powered marketing hype and peer pressure.

For better or worse, Madison Avenue and its ilk have programmed rising generations to respond positively and eagerly to the fashionably rebellious messages and careers projected by distinctive and at times outlandish musical personalities and celebrities.

Perceiving such an environment, and indeed likely embracing at least some of it, why shouldn’t young classical performers exploit the system to their advantage by reaching out to their own demographic to grab the gold rings of attention and appreciation for their own formidable performance skills? Many, like the flamboyant Lang Lang, have already instinctively latched on to the notion that classical music today needs its own brand of guitar hero in order to survive and prosper.

Classical rock star Lang Lang at the piano. (Credit: Detlev Schneider)

This brings us around to the irony lurking behind the new generation’s classical music iconography. It’s a development that should actually please older concertgoers if they would take the time to look slightly beyond the post-punk, post-Goth, techno appearance of those young performers who’ve chosen follow current musical marketing trends. If so, they might see something that looks vaguely familiar.

Ji’s recent performance here, including his aforementioned stage persona actually hearkened back, big time, to older concert goers’ golden memories of the barnstorming, late-Romantic classical artists who were wildly popular during the not-too-distant past. These were performers—particularly pianists—whose flamboyance, eccentricity and onstage flair sent classical audiences into ecstasies and kept ticket sales humming.

Even their formal outfits were part of the game, so different, so formal, so 19th century they seemed against the inexorable rush of modernism, particularly after the Second World War. Such concert dress at the time, distinctly communicated “classical” and “intellectual” to the audience.

Serious classical artists were frequently admired for this, even by people who had never attended a “concert” performance. That term, back in the day, always meant a performance of classical music exclusively as opposed to what we must endure now in far-distant venues like the Jiffy Lube Center.

Vintage classical artists of old were venerated as being a cut above the ordinary popular musician in both attitude and skill, and thus deserving of respect and even awe. The 20th century was loaded with such legendary and still-remembered artists. Horowitz was the template for this kind of showmanship. Even his lengthy disappearance from the limelight only served to enhance his myth and mystique.

A dashing Vladimir Horowitz in the early 1930s. (Library of Congress via Wikipedia)

But Horowitz had plenty of company. During this era, audiences for what was sometimes called “serious music” also thrilled to the likes of Rachmaninoff (when he chose to perform), Paderewski (modern Poland’s first leader), Hoffmann, and the somewhat more reserved Artur Rubenstein among the pianists; Heifetz and Stern among the violinists; Maria Callas, the uncrowned queen of opera divas; and flamboyant conductors ranging from the older but still-spry Stokowski, to the stern and demanding Toscanini, and even to that young American whippersnapper, the upstart Leonard Bernstein and a host of others.

Critics can quarrel until the end of time about the actual artistry exemplified by these late-Romantic classical showmen, some of whom dropped bucketloads of notes in pursuit of box office bonanzas, thrilling audiences with their derring-do very much like guitar-smashing rockers drove fans to a frenzy a couple of generations down the road.

But showmen these barnstormers undoubtedly were. People came to see them from far and wide in an era where time and transportation were greater challenges than they are today. These devoted fans loved the music they heard. And they loved the live spectacle provided by these legendary artists even more.

Pianist-composer Sergei Rachmaninoff seated at the Steinway in this 1930s photo. He hated concertizing, but his fans always demanded more, and adored his compositions as well. (Wikipedia)

Taking a key from their likely model, that original 19th century rock star pianist Franz Liszt, these Golden Age classical artists and many who emulated them kept classical music current and popular by remembering to “put the eyebrows on it” as the late Frank Zappa once noted in a slightly different context.

As these artists passed away, however, much of that old showmanship died. Combined with the bizarre fixation on the twelve-tone row by at least three generations of academic composers—whose tenured university chairs rendered them immune from having to worry about the inconvenience of attracting an audience—the ensuing lack of performance excitement, along with an absence of fresh, new yet listenable classical repertoire came close, at least in part, to killing off classical music entirely in our own time.

Well before Elvis or the Stones, pianist-composer Franz Liszt attracted legions of fans and groupies in the 19th century, as illustrated in this well-known contemporary caricature.

Whether traditionalists like it or not, it’s our younger classical composers and artists who may very well bring the classical tradition back from the brink. As most recently exemplified here by some of the new work our own Washington National Opera has begun to present in the Kennedy Center’s more intimate Terrace Theater, America’s rising classical Kiddie Corps clearly is eager for people to come to their concerts and performances, listen to their music, and, frankly, acknowledge and, if they so desire, appreciate the considerable time and study they’ve input into their output.

And so it is that Lang Lang, Yuja Wang, Ji and others who increasingly are attracting new audiences with their 21st century personae, garb and showmanship chops that, seem to be inviting us to go back to the future of classical music by re-creating an environment of intellect, fun, and excitement similar to the good old days when the public clamored for concert tickets and vinyl recordings of Vladimir Horowitz and friends.

Now it’s buzz cuts, very short dresses, YouTube videos and MP-3s and -4s. Somewhere, the spirits of Horowitz and Rachmaninoff are probably smiling. Well, Horowitz, anyway.


Let’s close our commentary with a 13+ minute YouTube video recorded at the 2010 Santa Fe Music Festival. It features pianist Yuja Wang performing a wide-ranging and amazingly difficult selection of compositions penned by the eccentric and sometimes neglected Russian genius, Alexander Scriabin. Ms. Wang’s short skirt will immediately catch your attention. But the passion and intensity of her performance will propel you directly to in search of her latest CDs. Enjoy.

Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, movies and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was formerly the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2009) before moving online with Communities in 2010.  



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