Chasing our Tails…Conductor Smack Down!

Conductor Smack Down!
Conductor Smack Down!

The first in a series of Conductor Smack Downs!

The topic what we wear, and what the audience wears has popped up yet again.  We so often don’t have an answer to our audience woes, so why do we turn to fashion to solve our problems?  If we are building a house and we are looking at a hole in the ground where it will eventually be, the window treatments should be the furthest  thing from our minds….

Holly’s Partial Observer article mentions the audience expectations in regards to dress.  I am glad she wrote about this as we can’t discount the importance of their needs from us.  Like it or not we are an occasion for many people, an event that many get dressed up for.   At the same time, if they don’t want to dress up that is OK too, our audience members are there for many purposes be it social, educational or otherwise, which is why the idea of a Blue Jeans concert series bothers me as is that not a dress code also that also potentially shuts people out?*  We are there primarily for the purposes of giving them a great concert that demonstrates unity,  so we need to look unified also.

The majority of our audiences are above 40 (well above) and there are many traditionalists that make up our audience who like to see us in traditional formal attire.  We need to include them in the decision if we want to change the dress and the aesthetic.  The visual element is a big part of the experience for many.  I know this because of the mail we sometimes receive regarding our appearance (and how I don’t wear patent leather shoes! – I draw the line at some things I guess).  We like to think that the way we perform and the music we perform should be the only reason people attend, but I feel as though most are there for the overall experience and that includes the way we look.  As an actor it would be more comfortable to perform Shakespeare in a jumpsuit also!

If Henry the V went shopping instead of into battle:

Once more into the “britches”, dear friends, once more

For me there is comfort level in wearing traditional clothing and it also heightens all of our expectations.  I look at it like a graduation.  We are graduating the program that we have been working on so hard.  It is now time to present the graduating class of Mahler’s 5th 2007….70 minutes later thunderous applause and standing ovations!  I like making an effort to dress up for our audience in appreciation for their attendance, and to show we are unified for them in every way for this special occasion.

On the flip side dressing up is a little awkward and embarrassing when there are very few in the audience (luckily for us not a problem here at the present time).  They are not staying away because of the way we dress, it goes much deeper than that so let’s not blame the clothes.  It is that we are all dressed up and the audiences had other places to go!  We wont find them by chasing our “tails”.

* The Mobile Symphony does present a Beethoven and Blue Jeans concert once a year which seems to be very successful based on it’s longevity.  The reason for it’s success I believe is that it is only once a year which makes wearing jeans an annual event rather than an expected dress code for a series, which is very restrictive no matter how comfortable the clothes are.  I applaud them for not trying to make out that the concert is exclusively for the “young” which is one of my pet peeves.

4 thoughts on “Chasing our Tails…Conductor Smack Down!”

  1. Perhaps, a compromise would be to wear attire appropriate to the repertoire: all black shirts and slacks for lighter fare, and the full regalia for Mahler, and company…

    My feeling goes both ways. It shows respect for the music to be attired in something formal; whether it needs to be tails, is another matter.

    We now live in a culture which seems to move from the family room to public spaces without pause to glance in the mirror. An earlier generation (mine), still dresses to go to the grocery store, and it was not so many decades ago, that we actually wore evening dress to symphony concerts, simply because it was a special night out, with dinner after: everyone celebrating something wonderful.

    My brother-in-law, a fabulous piano teacher, and head of the piano department at a prominant music school for over 40 years, chided an unkempt student for his attire, by pulling out his shirt, and throwing off his shoes, and sitting at the piano to begin the lesson. The shocked student stammered, “But, Mr. Hanson, you can’t do that! It doesn’t look right.” Point taken: respect the music, respect the music-maker, respect the audience.

  2. The manner in which an audience perceives the presentation of a live performance has a great deal to do with the sound of the music, but until the concert is performed behind a screen it is also affected by the visual presentation, which includes fashion. I tend to agree that the program may reflect different choices in orchestral dress for different occasions. After several years of refining a high school orchestra program in a socio-economically challenged area, I permitted the high school girls to wear their formal gowns — in colors — for their May concert, while boys wore traditional black suits and tuxes. The kids loved to practice and prepare their program of music, but also looked forward to showing their finest selves with the community. While our culture ‘at large’ may seldom glance in the mirror regarding attire between various daily activities, the culture of people appreciative of live musical arts is more likely to care about their own image as well as that of musicians on stage. Let’s just be glad we have absconded with the British wig tradition!

  3. Why not comprimise? I find it amazing that neither yours, nor Bill’s pieces mention the modern, professional suit, which retain the uniformity, looks spiffy, and is already a widely used dress option by orchestras steeped in tradition like Berlin and Vienna… Vienna for god’s sake.

    As a professional musician this would make me happy for several reasons:
    1) The uniform look is retained.
    2.) We would look like the professionals we are, not like maître d’s.
    3.) Suits are cheaper, more comfortable and easier to come by than tuxedos.

  4. When I was a kid, a tuxedo was a double-breasted affair that you had to keep buttoned at all times. It hampered movement, and we sweated a lot. But now the kids are wearing single-breasted tuxedos that are left unbuttoned to show off the shirt front. That shouldn’t be too uncomfortable.

    Never having worn a tailcoat, I can’t comment, except to say that it seems it is handy to have those pockets in the tail in which to carry rosin, mutes, and — in the case of Rodzinski — a loaded revolver.


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