Classical gasp


Pianist Yuja Wang struck a chord at the Hollywood Bowl this month and not just with her performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. The 24-year-old Chinese soloist had necks craning, tongues wagging and flashbulbs popping when she walked on wearing an orange, thigh-grazing, body-hugging dress atop sparkly gold strappy stiletto sandals.

In particular, Wang’s outfit was a hot topic at the concert and continued after L.A. Times music critic Mark Swed’s review appeared in print and online. While Swed praised her delicacy, speed and grace at the piano, his fashion comments -- including the observation: “Her dress Tuesday was so short and tight that had there been any less of it, the Bowl might have been forced to restrict admission to any music lover under 18 not accompanied by an adult” -- have touched off a spirited debate among music critics and bloggers about what constitutes appropriate concert attire and, conversely, whether a critique of a performer’s clothes has any place in a music review.

It should be noted that while the Los Angeles Philharmonic has a very specific dress code for members of its orchestra (several ones, actually, depending on the time of day and season), it does not apply to soloists. They, according to an L.A. Phil representative, are informed what the orchestra will be wearing and can choose whatever they feel is most appropriate. “For women that’s traditionally an evening gown,” the rep said, “but that’s not always the case.”


Although Wang declined, through her management company, to discuss the dress or why she chose to wear it for that particular performance, others were quick to defend her wardrobe decision.

“I look at Yuja with nothing but total sympathy,” said Cameron Carpenter, a 30-year-old Grammy-nominated musician whose often flamboyant attire while playing the organ similarly cuts against expectations. “For one thing, she’s a great artist and for another, she looks like about a hundred million dollars in that dress.”

Carpenter refers to Wang’s wardrobe preferences, like his own (which include Chanel, Valentino and Vivienne Westwood pieces he’s tweaked to his liking), as a performer’s “sovereign rights.”

“A performer can do anything and everything to present their music in any way they see fit. And therefore, what the performer presents has to be regarded as a total whole. It’s much more important that it’s genuine self-expression.

“What people are missing here is that Yuja might want to be seen to be making, as many of us do, a personal statement without having played a note,” Carpenter said. “After all, they see you before they hear you.”

That all-of-a-package notion is echoed by Gerald Klickstein, a University of North Carolina School for the Arts faculty member and author of “The Musician’s Way: A Guide to Practice, Performance, and Wellness,” a textbook that advises undergraduate music students on all aspects of a music career -- including proper attire.


“The moment the audience catches sight of the performer, the performance has begun -- their mannerisms, their attire, everything matters.” (And as such, Klickstein says, it is fair game for mention in a music review.)

Far from being inappropriate, Klickstein said, Wang’s wardrobe was a wholly authentic reflection of artist, set and setting. “She is a magnificent pianist .... She’s playing in L.A., she’s 24, she’s a soloist, and there’s a lot of excitement in her playing that’s being conveyed through her attire. I think it’s terrific that she’s expressing herself from the stage and taking full advantage of the visual aspects of a live performance.”

While Klickstein (who was not at the concert) said it’s hard to know exactly what caused the current concert clothing kerfuffle, he offers one possibility: “If you [look at] the problems facing major orchestras, there’s a big challenge in dealing with the major donors with the most conservative tastes and trying to please them while trying to do the kind of innovative work that would draw a younger audience. There’s a tendency for audience members to want to have their expectations met and not be surprised.

“Classical music culture is loaded with conformity and obedience, and that’s one reason we might see some of this resistance.”

Mary Davis, a music professor, chairwoman of the department of music at Case Western Reserve University and author of several books exploring the intersection of music and fashion (including “Ballets Russes Style: Diaghilev’s Dancers and Paris Fashion” in 2010 and “Classic Chic: Music, Fashion, and Modernism” in 2006) also pointed to the confounding of expectations.

“It cuts against the expectation people usually have that classical music is distant somehow from anything as frivolous or insubstantial as fashion -- when it’s not at all.”


And, while Davis says there’s certainly nothing new under the sun when it comes to a soloist dressing to stand out against the black-and-white-clad orchestral backdrop, “what is something totally new is the kind of edge that it’s testing,” she said.

“It’s one thing to wear a couture gown that might be strapless but all the way to the ground with whatever heels you want underneath, but to come out in a really, really bright orange mini-dress with revealing cutouts like that one is a different story. I think that kind of cutting-edge, high-fashion modernity is what created the stir. It doesn’t go along with the aesthetic of the classical performance.”

Davis dismissed the argument that a soloist’s outfit could detract from the performance.

“I think the idea that what somebody’s wearing will so distract you that you will not be able to pay attention to their performance seems absurd. When she sits down at the piano and starts playing like a maniac, you’re going to pay attention to what she’s playing. If you’re not, you probably shouldn’t be there in the first place.”

But at least one recently published study suggests that wardrobe choice might well influence audience perception.

In her article “Posh Music Should Equal Posh Dress,” which appeared in the April 2010 issue of the journal Psychology of Music, British. researcher Noola Griffiths, who holds a doctorate in the psychology of performance from the University of Sheffield, asked audience members to rate the skills of female performers dressed in three outfits: jeans and a T-shirt, a “night-clubbing” outfit (which Griffiths describes as a body-conscious outfit consisting of a short skirt and halter-style top) and a floor-length concert dress.

“In addition to being seen as inappropriate,” Griffiths said, “the performers in the night-clubbing dress were seen as less technically proficient and less musical than when they were wearing the concert dress. Which told me that this kind of body-focused dressing seems to affect the perception of musical skills.”


But, as Davis pointed out, the 24-year-old pianist is so skilled that could hardly qualify as an issue.

“She is one of the stars that’s ushering in a new era of technical perfection and polish,” Davis said. “So how could you possibly be paying attention to the dress and not hearing what she’s doing? I just don’t buy it.”

And as long as the public buys tickets to watch Yuja Wang play, she will almost assuredly be allowed free rein to sit at the piano wearing whatever she pleases.