Lim Yau, until recently resident conductor of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, was back in front of them for Sunday’s Casual Concert. During the question and answer session he was asked why the orchestra appears on stage dressed in black and white and, in an impressive display of honesty and frankness, he confessed he had “no idea”. He knew that orchestras used to be dressed that way in the 18th century, but could not come up with an explanation as to why, in the 21st century, orchestras still did.
It took me back to an occasion in the late 1950s when, as a tiny boy attending one of the Saturday morning children’s concerts in London’s brand spanking new Festival Hall, a child near me in the audience asked the same question and received a very similar response from the podium. The maestro on that occasion knew that orchestras dressed that way in the 18th century but wondered why they still did so in “the middle of the 20th century” (and how modern that sounded then!).My feeling is that orchestras dressed that way in the 18th century as they were employed as servants and, in a way, nothing’s changed. They are still servants; maybe not of an aristocratic master (although some are servants of an antagonistic oil company – but that’s another story), but of the music, and by dressing as servants (they dress as do head waiters at an exclusive restaurant) they show a physical act of homage to the music. That’s my feeling, and I have to say it distresses me when musicians feel they are more important than the music they play. The only fault I could find after the wonderful SSO concert on Friday was that both conductor Okko Kamu and pianist Benjamin Grosvenor appeared on stage looking very much as if their crowded bus had been late and they had to rush on to stage before getting properly dressed. Call me old fashioned; call me a dinosaur; but tieless shirts look wrong and inject a wholly unwelcome element of the careless into a formal occasion. Kamu’s reading of Sibelius 4 was astounding in its visionary breadth while Grosvenor’s immaculate Schumann Concerto was a model of elegance and intelligence; yet they both looked wrong.
Any half-decent choir trainer will stress the importance of the singers dressing the same both to inculcate into the singers and to display to the audience a sense of unity. Dress may not affect the voice, but it certainly affects the totality of the performance. If it works with choirs, surely it works with orchestras too. And by keeping to black and white you not only avoid the risk of visual distraction but also pander to the synaesthetics who associate specific colours with specific tonalities. How could, say, a modern-day Skryabin accept a D flat minor prelude from a pianist wearing green!Dress aside, Lim Yau’s comments got me thinking just how little the orchestra has actually adapted itself to the 21st century. It still sits in the same basic pattern. True, 100 years ago it developed a habit of always having the violins to the left of the conductor and the cellos to the right, but the gradual erosion of that seating, not least by the SSO itself (not this weekend, I hasten to add, when all concerts resorted to that traditional seating plan) actually reverts to the orchestral layout of the 19th century, so is hardly something new.
It still plays the same music. Every decade or so a handful of new works appears in the repertoire – newly written ones as well as old ones which have suddenly risen inexplicably back to prominence – while others disappear from view. Who would have thought, say 50 years ago, that Vivaldi’s Seasons would have attained the ubiquitous place it has in the orchestral repertoire while Luigini’s Ballet Egyptienne should have dropped so spectacularly below the radar?It still adopts the same format for its concerts. Overture – Concerto – Symphony with occasional adjustments for the serious ones (Friday’s was Symphony-Concerto-Symphony), and lots of short little pieces and a kindly, humorous, entertaining (if you’re lucky) host for the casual ones. Dressing up and introducing silly musical instruments for children’s concerts is nothing new – just look at Leopold Mozart’s “Toy” Symphony – and showing off the instruments of an orchestra in concert is as old as the hills; or, at least, as old as Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, as hugely popular with children now as it was 50 years ago.
In short, concert-goers have seen little significant change in the last two centuries, let alone in the first decade of this one.But is that cause for concern? Might it not be that the orchestral concert with all its traditions concerning dress, behaviour, repertoire and accessibility is such an ideal format that it needs no modernising? I don’t see any let up in the number of concerts being given around the world, the SSO gets an enthusiastic and loyal following without resorting to gimmicks as does just about every other successful orchestra in the world, and if audience numbers fall, might that not be more to do with poor playing, silly programming or simply bad management than with a format which, far from being tired and irrelevant, has stood the test of time and is today as fresh and exciting as it was in the 18th century?