When even the Brits are ahead of you…. Conductor Smack Down!

Conductor Smack Down!
Conductor Smack Down!

There has been much brouhaha concerning concert attire lately. Now, for the record, I love my Tails. They are made by my good and dear friend tailor John here in Minneapolis. John is a self-described stereotypical Italian Jewish tailor who knows much more music than I do and is one of the happiest people I know. He loves his job and I love working with him. When I put on the Tails he made for me it’s like I slip into another world of fancy dress and high society. Or in the immortal words of Will Smith – “The difference between you and me… I make this look good.” (MiB in case you’re searching for the pop culture reference) Having said that – people, can we please please PLEASE come kicking and screaming into at least the 20th century and get some different threads?

OK, we all know that the only people who still wear Tails are classical musicians and butlers. That’s OK. The problem lies in the fact that we are so rigid about this dress code. It is a symptom of the intransigence that is so pervasive in the classical music world. And here comes the shocker – our audiences realize this! I cannot begin to tell you how many times someone has come up to me after a Lighter Classics Concert (or something similar – almost every orchestra without a $200 million dollar endowment has some series like this) and has said “Great concert, but how come everyone was in formal dress? It looks silly!” I can only agree. For better or worse we live in a visual world. Hiding our heads in the sands of formal dress attire is not going to change this very basic fact. I mean when even the British Legal System rethinks the use of those ridiculous white wigs you know that the world is changing. This from the people who in some circles still claim that the Sun Never Sets on the British Empire.

What we need is flexibility. We need concert appropriate attire. I’m all for keeping Tails for a formal Saturday Night concert. But what about the following concert:

Prelude, Fugue and Riffs
Jazz Symphony Antheil
Rhapsody in Blue Gershwin
Ebony Concerto Stravinsky
Dialogues for Jazz Combo and Orchestra Brubeck

Now before all the purists get up in arms and say “This program would never fly” may I point out that this is an actual Masters Series Programe which I performed with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra last season, and for the record it sold out. This is also the program which started that unfortunate “wiggling bum” incident which I’m going to spend the rest of my life living down. Why oh why could we not play this kind of concert in straight black? Stylish and somehow appropriate. It would certainly be easier than dealing with Tails, which tend to be very hot when one’s bum is wiggling to this extent.

Let me mention two instances when different attire has made quite a difference with an audience. I remember doing a gig with my good friend Doc Severinsen. Anyone who has seen Doc through the years will know that he has a wardrobe that spans 40 years and a gazillion styles, all of them as loud and colorful as possible. During the 2nd half of this concert in honor of Doc this orchestra dressed up in the loudest tops possible, and they held an ugly shirt contest which was judged by Doc himself. The audience couldn’t get enough of this.

The second instance was when I started the Casual Classics Series @ the Minnesota Orchestra. One of the first things we addressed was a less formal attire. After much experimentation we settled on black bottoms and colorful tops (that’s the expurgated version of the description of the official attire). I can’t tell you how many people commented on the fact that they were less intimidated by this very simple visual change. I don’t claim that this is what made the series a success. I would hope that the music itself and our attempt to make it more accessible and understandable to our audience had much more to do with the the favourable response of our audience. But none-the-less I do think it was a positive factor.

So that’s my take. Please don’t for a second think I want to drop the formal attire completely. I would hate to put my friend John out of business. But we should have the courage to realize that in today’s visual world our concert attire is an anachronism, one that is symptomatic of how the entire business of classical music is perceived out in the real world.

6 thoughts on “When even the Brits are ahead of you…. Conductor Smack Down!”

  1. I whole-heartedly agree with you, tuxes are ridiculous. When I get dressed for work I have a hard time deciding if I look like I’m going to be seating people for dinner or tending the restroom in a strip club.

    This is of course besides the fact that tuxedos are the least comfortable attire one could possibly perform in, which I can’t believe is a consideration that is so easily dismissed. Performing music is at it’s core, a physical endevour, we should be dressed accordingly. I think the simplest solution is to retain the uniformity and wear suits, which look professional (and most orchestra musicians want to be treated as professionals, even when we are dressed like servants, looking the part might go a long way. If organizations like the Vienna Philharmonic, which are steeped in tradition to a fault can wear modern attire, I don’t see any reason why a single North American Orchestra cannot.


  2. We had a recently Academy Awards-themed concert, and encouraged all of the musicians to address up even more formally – your absolute finest red carpet duds. It was inspiring to see designer gowns, jackets of every length and style, and color, color, color. We had immense positive feedback, especially when the musicians showcased their wardrobe as celebrity presenters (awkwardly scripted non-sequiturs and all).

    As a violinist, I would argue that bow-ties are significantly More comfortable to perform in than long ties, but I’m in the minority.

  3. I think that as long as the colors are dark, it doesn’t matter what kind of clothing the orchestra or conductor wears. Well, I guess not something too revealing either. My reason is that the symphony is not a visual art; it is an audio art. I don’t want to be distracted by bright colors or thoughts about “how is that soloist keeping that dress up?” I want to wallow in sound, and if I must watch something, I can focus on the conductor or a player. But anything that distracts me from the music, I vote against. As for the conductor swinging his or her hips, well, it all depends on how much and whether his con- ducting style really warrants it.

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