By a stroke of luck, I caught a programme about André Previn’s association with the BBC just hours before the BBC i-Player took it down. It was a wonderful trip down memory lane, to the days when mainstream television in the UK devoted peak viewing hours to a programme of classical music performed by the greatest musicians of the time. There was a youthful Janet Baker reminding us that hers, surely, was one of the greatest voices of the 20th century, and an even more youthful Anthony Camden leading the oboe section of the matchless LSO. Sadly neither of those great musicians is still with us and the LSO is a shadow of its former self. But Previn remains, albeit older and somewhat more bloated - and his comments on these historic clips from the archives were every bit as fascinating as the archives themselves. He reminded us just how controversial these programmes were at the time, not because they were “serious” music presented as entertainment, but because of Previn’s own relaxed and informal style. As he said, he wanted to make the viewers feel at ease, and chose to wear roll-neck sweaters and casual trousers; a dress-code which did not seem to have been allowed to members of the orchestra. At the time I do remember how outrageous this seemed; conductors wore tails and white bow ties - how could anyone take a conductor seriously who dressed like a normal human being? Of course, 1970s normal is not 2010s normal, and he looked incredibly stiff and dated in his carefully-manicured relax-ness while the orchestra, apart from astonishing hirsute displays, could have been filmed yesterday, so comfortably familiar did they appear in their formal concert attire.
From that point onwards, the issue of what musicians should wear for concerts and recitals has become ever more problematic; how easier it all was when nobody questioned the need for musicians to dress in the timeless style of a head waiter or butler. The introduction of women into orchestras certainly created an awareness of the need to formalize a dress code (in Previn’s programmes, female orchestral players were conspicuous by their absence, although an early appearance of Kyung-Wha Chung brought a moment of restrained elegance), and today there are strict guidelines in most professional orchestras about what women players should wear.
The only trouble is, they are all different, and as for solo recitals and chamber presentations – not even to go down the road of vocal performances which is an issue too thorny even for this brave blog to tackle – there is no consensus at all. Search the internet and you will find thousands of different dress codes; indeed, it seems that every school, college, conservatory or teaching studio which has an online presence has its own unique dress code. My favourite came from one in the US (I saw it, moved on and quite forgot to log which one it was) which stated; “backs, shoulders, elbows and knees must be covered”, although I have to say I admired the delicacy of advice from the Eastman School at the University of Rochester that “Too much bare skin anywhere (décolletage, arms, legs) can be very distracting”. That seems pretty sound advice, yet how few seem to take it.
I attended a concert on Friday evening where the solo violinist wore a backless dress which exposed so much skin (and the hint of what was once euphemistically referred to as a “builders’ cleavage”) that, clearly, she regretted her wardrobe choice and took the first opportunity to slip of stage and change into something less revealing. I sat in on some student chamber concerts on Saturday and saw into rather more young girls’ armpits than I care to mention (luckily they had all shaved). And I will never forget the curvaceous violinist at a concert a few weeks ago whose spaghetti straps so persistently fell off her shoulders, I forgot about the music in eager anticipation of a full-scale wardrobe malfunction; it never came, possibly because, in the interval, it had obviously slipped off altogether and she reappeared on stage in something altogether more practical for the occasion.
As the women strive to turn a musical performance into a fashion statement, so , in our age of metro-sexuality, men, too, feel the need to show that it is they, not the music, which is the centre of attention, and find all manner of weird and wonderful things to wear in a bid to outshine the dull and dreary attempts of Bach and Beethoven to capture our full attention. One eminent pianist, in an act of absolutely appalling narcissism, actually tells us who his “wardrobe designer” is – as if that has any bearing on the music he plays - while another is so anxious to be at the cutting edge of male grooming that his extraordinary tight clothes physically prevent him from the kind of displays of virtuosity of his peers. Tieless – even shirtless – jackets, shin-length leggings and weird and wonderful displays of neck have become the norm up top, while at the lower end of the body (the bit that everyone in the front rows of the audience sees) things are even more wildly inconsistent. I have seen bulky running shoes, flat sandals, flamboyant shoes with more strings than a theorbo, and cumbersome boots which would easily do for a climb up Mt Everest. The most disgusting thing I have seen was at the chamber concerts on Saturday when one violinist wore shoes without socks, and this sight of his bare ankles heading directly into none-too-clean shoes was really more than my stomach could stand.
Some might argue that they need to feel “comfortable” on stage; yet comfort easily leads to complacency, and that kills performances. Others, that formal attire creates a barrier and prevents the audience feeling at their ease; as if listening to a Brahms quintet is “easy”. Yet formal dress serves a very important purpose. It visually unifies an ensemble of musicians, and presents them, not as the ultimate creator, but as the servant by whom the creator passes his work on to his consumers. Do waiters in restaurants wear chef’s clothes? No; in the highest class restaurants the delineation of duties is clearly defined by their dress. I can think of no more nourishing role model for a concert than a top-flight gastronomic experience; it’s not coincidence that has musicians wearing the same uniform as butlers and head waiters. In the world of pop and jazz, there are different attitudes; the performer there is very much the creator. But in the world of classical music, performers are at the mercy of what they have to perform, and they need to show it to create that sense (subliminal as it may be) of serving the music, rather than promoting themselves.
The wonderful recital diplomas of Trinity College London include an element called “Presentation Skills” in which, among other things, attire is considered and both marked and remarked upon. The syllabus states that “dress should be of the kind considered appropriate for a lunchtime or early evening recital”. So far so good, except that, as we have seen, there is no accepted dress code for recitals, irrespective of whatever time of day they take place, and in its typical inability to join up its thinking on a potentially excellent product, Trinity gives no advice or guidance whatsoever either to students or, more seriously, examiners. At examiner meetings we frequently argued interminably over what constituted correct attire. The older ones felt nothing short of full white tie and black tails would suffice, while others concentrated on shoes and shoulders, some were adamant that a plastic water bottle taken on stage would warrant loss of marks, others that the very fact that the candidate appeared for an examination warranted 100% in the Presentation Skills section. It really does come down to the luck of the draw; whatever you wear will be marked according to the examiner’s preference, not a clear unequivocal indication of what is expected. If your examiner is old, quickly nip off and change into formal uniform, if he’s young, stick to the jeans and torn tee shirt. And, in typical Trinity style, if you don’t like what is said in the report, send it back and complain; you are almost guaranteed to have your mark raised so terrified is Trinity of upsetting its “customer base”.
There was a time when questions of dress were never raised, and musicians could concentrate totally on their performance. Thanks to Previn and his roll-neck sweaters, the music too often is overshadowed by the dress. Can that be right?