Can 'sexy' be 'serious' too?

Times Staff Writer

Classical music, it seems, is becoming a highbrow "Baywatch." The Web site www.beautyinmusic.com features revealing photographs of comely female musicians suggestively holding violins and cellos. The site, run by a Colorado singer-songwriter, calls itself "the ultimate guide to the hottest women in classical music." And in Britain, the new 24-hour television station Classic FM has launched a kind of classical MTV with three-minute videos devoted to Vanessa-Mae, Charlotte Church and Nigel Kennedy's hair. It's not just the golden-locked Leila Josefowicz, who made a splash in the 1990s, anymore.

Soloists are increasingly young Asian women (Chee-Yun) in clingy evening gowns, or Scandinavian maidens (Playboy cover girl Linda Brava) with flowing blond hair; the young men lean toward Tom Cruise-style All-Americans (the blue-jeaned Joshua Bell) or Byronic heartthrobs (hair-tossing Andre Rieu). Even demure players such as Hilary Hahn are being photographed like movie stars. Many players under 35 are being sold as "babes" of one kind or the other.

"For God's sake, let's put some uncompromising physical ugliness back into classical music," critic Victor Lewis-Smith writes in a recent London Evening Standard, "so we all start listening again instead of looking, before it's too late."

There have always been handsome classical performers who traded on their physical charisma, from pianists Dinu Lipatti and William Kapell (both of whom died young, their features never sullied by age) to the dashing Leonard Bernstein to opera divas such as Rosa Ponselle. But it's gone a whole other step from the days when English cellist Jacqueline DuPre was considered a sex symbol.

Is it healthy for classical music to step into the ring with popular culture, to fight for magazine spreads and TV space, to move out of the fine-arts ghetto? Or will packaged sexuality kill serious music, making it harder for a brilliant but homely player to get a hearing?

"It feels increasingly desperate," says David Sefton, who books classical musicians for UCLA Performing Arts. "This is an attempt to market and commodify classical music to make it more like pop, to plug the gap for rapidly shrinking record sales." At the very least, he says, it's annoying. "But when someone's just a great musician and not a looker, and they don't get a record contract ... that's when it's reprehensible."

A few years ago, Canadian musician Lara St. John posed topless (with a strategically placed violin) for the cover of her Bach LP. More recently, New York publicist Glenn Petry took Leif Ove Andsnes -- a stylish 30-ish Norwegian -- to a reception and recital at the TriBeCa showroom of Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake, introducing the pianist to the fashion world.

"Pop musicians do these things all the time," Petry says. "But this is one of those issues that seems only to trouble people in classical music: When someone glamorous appears, people question it. I find that to be unfair. You have to play by the rules of pop culture, to go with the visual orientation of the culture right now."

Says Petry: "It's a natural for these young players, because they grew up with pop culture. You get a few people like Yevgeny Kissin" -- the brilliant, Brillo-haired young pianist who still travels with his mother and a wizened piano teacher -- "who's in another world. But a lot of them are regular guys -- they like fashion and play into it."

The bias against glamorous musicians isn't entirely unfair: Some of the best looking have been among the worst sounding.

The Singapore-born, London-based Vanessa-Mae, for instance, got a lot of attention when she emerged as a young violinist in the early '90s, but she never gained critical respect, and her career has come to depend on her see-through tops. Her Web site offers more than 600 pictures of her.

A boon or betrayal?

The sharpening up of classical musicians is good for the musicians' careers, says Susan Wadsworth, founder of Young Concert Artists in New York. She's watched classical musicians get younger, more female and more Asian in the 42 years since she started the company. She sees nothing threatening about groups like the lithesome New York-based Eroica Trio.

"They've got a great spirit, and they get themselves done up so they look gorgeous," says Wadsworth. "And why not? They're onstage: They're not playing behind a screen. So why not have three attractive young women?"

Wadsworth thinks the press needs to take notice of the change. She recalls violinist Elina Vahala making her New York debut: "The reviews never mentioned that she's a good-looking girl. I think that's a shame -- I think everybody here enjoyed looking at her. She played beautifully. But what's wrong with saying she's wonderful to look at too?"

There are historical reasons why some consider packaging classical musicians a betrayal. "The issue is a phenomenon itself," says William Weber, a historian at Cal State Long Beach, who says the anxiety comes from "musical idealism." In the 19th century, classical music was supposed to come directly from the soul, to be unsullied by commerce, and to be more pure than "light," or popular, music. Weber points out that idealists like Robert Schumann looked down their nose at flamboyant players -- and dressers -- like Franz Liszt, the rock star of his day.

Serious music, and especially opera, was very sexualized at one point, says Robert Fink, a UCLA musicologist, describing the operas by Verdi, Donizetti and French composers that included ballets with scantily clad women. "It worked more or less like pole dancing," he says. "Guys would send notes backstage and have meetings with them later."

But sex was divorced from music's presentation when art became a substitute for religion around the time of Wagner, Fink says. "Sometime in the late 19th and early 20th century, the tradition of Puritan moral uplift won, but for a limited time," he says. The canon firmed up, and music became something where "the listener sits rapt in a chair with his eyes closed, letting the music course through him." This austere sensibility was shored up during the recording era, in which people listened to music, for the first time, without the physical presence of musicians. Walrus mustaches, bad glasses and white hair dominated.

"Classical music was allowed to have 'a face for radio,' and for the phonograph," Fink says. "But we're moving back to a more ballyhoo world; classical music is snapping back to something it did for a very long time."

When it comes to classical music and sex, though, it could be worse. In Britain -- which has exported much of its lower-middlebrow culture to the U.S. lately, from the saucy magazine Maxim to "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" to Ozzy Osbourne -- so-called crossover groups, designed to broaden the audience for classical music, are big business.

Many of them look better than they sound. One of the most successful crossover groups, which has barely broken over here, is Bond, a string quartet of shapely women that combines classical sounds and dance beats. UCLA's Sefton calls the group, which is often shot like an Obsession perfume ad, "a classical-music Monkees." An earlier prefab English group, the Mediaeval Baebes, has only barely hit in the States. "It was an attempt to make an early-music group out of a bunch that looked like dodgy strippers," he says, "a Miss Wet T-Shirt Contest staged with musical instruments. They're attempting to find gorgeous people and pretending they're a band."

Such crossover groups haven't made much impact in the United States; it may be that the fine arts are too far from teen culture here for the high-low fusion to find an audience. But the babe factor is getting stronger, either way. The jazz world has watched the Diana Krall process spread, as young, attractive jazz singers sell records by the boatload while many older musicians struggle for attention. Where will it stop in classical music?

Some aren't worried. "Classical music has not evolved into the visual age," says Petry. "If it's going to survive, it's got to evolve. If someone can't play well, they're not going to get very far. The standards are so high."

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