What classical music needs is more Yuja Wang

It’s pianophile Thursday at Slipped Disc:

Melanie Lust, a student at Northwestern University, has found the solution to declining concert attendances. Under the headline ‘Lust: As a matter of urgency, please make classical music sexy again’, Melanie writes:

…Female soloists and conductors tend to face extensive criticism for violations of these codes.

Take Yuja Wang, the Chinese pianist who regularly makes headlines for her outfits: high heels and tight, colorful mini-dresses. Her attire matches her performance style: vibrant, fiery, glittering with personality. And even though she’s won the most prestigious musicianship awards in the industry, critics never seem to tire of calling her “skimpy,” “improper” and “offensive.”

The reality is that there’s no historical or social reason why classical musicians need to wear formal clothes. A uniform doesn’t contribute to a performer’s musicality. If anything, dress codes hinder performances because they don’t allow soloists to fully express their identities. Any attempt to replace formality with personality should be celebrated instead of shunned. Beyond that, Yuja Wang shouldn’t be the only musician to dare enter the realm of self-expression — more soloists and conductors should step up and challenge the norms….

Read on here.

Graphic: Melanie Lust

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  • 1. “they don’t allow soloists to fully express their identities”

    Why this inflated talk of “identities”? A generation ago we could say everything true about ourselves without inflating it by talk of “my identity”. But “I’m quite patriotic” has become “My country is part of my identity”.

    2. “Dance around in your seat if the music moves you. ”

    i.e. “Though you may distract other members of the audience–though they may be unable to concentrate on the performance because of your writhings and jerkings–don’t give a damn about them because YOU are special! Other people don’t matter! It’s part of your identity to be inconsiderate, so lack of conideration is OK!”

  • The piano today don’t need business plan or marketing plan. There are marvelous young pianists like Kantorow Trifonov Rana Seong or Yeol Eum Son to see or to watch thanks to Youtube. The piano today it’s not only Lang Lang and miss Wang and all their buzz around.

    • Yet Wang is indisputably in that very top tier of current pianists with which we are blessed — pianists that on the merits, with eyes open or closed, compare favorably with historic greats (at least since the recording age). If Wang helps bring attention to this good fortune, then it is all for the good.

  • Totally disagree. That’s what the circus needs, not the art form.
    What classical music needs is more listening (again). Not more eye catching visuals, that distract the brain from the core of what music is all about.

    “Beyond that, Yuja Wang shouldn’t be the only musician to dare enter the realm of self-expression”

    holy moly… there is someone talking who has zero understanding what music is about.
    Hint: the expression is in the music, darling, not in the show. Close your eyes and search for it…

    Having said that, nobody should mind individual freedom and celebration of beauty, also visually. But try not to make it into something that distracts from the music, as soon as it started.

    • I have seen Wang several times in concerts. She’s very talented. It’s a very good show, long not boring. . But for some part of the repertoire she plays too like a robot or too strongly, I remember on Youtube a Ravel left hand with an Ipod horrible, 4 or 5 years ago. And sometimes it’s excellent. But during the last year I think she was in the good direction for Chopin for exemple.

      • I saw her before she became so famous. I have seen her play four times. The old grey haired ones who sat next to me didn’t know what hit them. You could tell it immediately. I don’t think that dancing in the aisles during the Emperor concerto is OK, but let Yuja wear what any young woman feels like. I’m 85, she’s 33.

    • Entirely true.

      This lady has no idea where she is talking about.

      Current traditional concert etiquette has developed to give the listening experience enough freedom and space to come across. Listening to a Beethoven 9 with an audience interrupting the music with its enthusiasm diminishes that very listening experience, it is THIS simple understanding which has led to the respect of the concert hall conventions. And the reason why performers dress in uniform black, is simply to be ‘invisible’ (like the function of the burka) so that the aural side can blossom. Also, the ‘chique’ touch of black dress and suit wants to express the nature of the art form as something deserving the gesture of nobility combined with servitude, as it should be. The often colourful gala dresses of female singers is, from this point of view, wrong, and a narcissistic abberation. That is why Yuja’s dress customs are embarrassing and diminish her musical achievement. It’s on the way to the Trumpique embarrasments of Ms Lola.

        • A comment born from the usual misunderstandings of Westerners.

          The burka comparison was used in a purely functionalist way: as a means to ‘make invisible’. In countries where men rule public space and women are subordinated, the women often run the risk of being bothered, or worse, by men. A burka makes them invisible and thus gives some freedom to move around. In an indirect way the garment expresses the suppression of women but in practice it also gives women some space. In countries where women have acquired more equal rights, especially in terms of behavior of men, the burka becomes superfluous and then you see it disappearing from public space (as in the big cities in Pakistan, for instance, which are strongly westernized).

          In public concerts of classical music, the music should be central in the experience, not the outfits of the performers. Music is not a visual but an aural art.

          • John,

            How must men conceal themselves (so as not to be bothered)?

            Using the words burka and freedom in the same sentence is very amusing…

            That type of sick oppression is precisely why people FLEE to lands like Europe or America.

          • Your inability to answer the question asserts my second vote for Trump.

            Justifying oppression and violence against women from not having rights to sexual abuse and acid attacks that you conveniently overlook via ‘seductive writing’ have driven me over to the Right!

            Thanks John!!!

          • The burqa is still not an appropriate comparison. There is no question of women’s “aural” contribution being maximised in countries demanding — not recommending — this garment. Its meaning is invested in other considerations.

            That said, point taken about concert dress being deliberately effacing in order that audiences focus on the aural rather than the visual experience.

            Bit patronising. Supposes that audiences have not kept apace with society in general, where “multi-media” experiences have become the norm. After all, for the complete removal of a visual image, all you have to do is listen to a record. A concert is a more complete experience, live, with all its potential for mistakes, surprises, etc. And the human playing is actually in attendance, 3-D, expressing that fact.

          • What is the nature of a society where ‘multi-media’ has become ‘the norm’? The norm of what? It is a nonsensical notion, merely pointing towards a form of degeneration of the senses. The meek way in which people accept ‘developments’ whatever their meaning, shows how eager they are to be patronized by superficial trends sold as progress.

    • Men could use a change as well!

      Both instrumentalists and singers have BORED audiences with suits and tuxes for too long.

      Some creativity is long overdue.

      • No, if audiences are bored by the performers’ outfits, they should go to other cultural events where outfits are central.

        It is like complaining that public libraries are so silent and that there are books everywhere.

        • On the contrary, a listener indifferent to whatever a musician wears to his or her own satisfaction is a true music lover, otherwise he is just there for pomp and circumstances.

  • Fun fact: people who react negatively to this post are less likely to be liberal.
    I’m very conservative btw, but not for concert outfits.

    • If understanding of an important Western art form is ‘conservative’, does that mean it cannot be ‘liberal’? What does that say about being liberal?

      If mathematics and common sense and cultural awareness are ‘conservative’, what does that say about ‘conservatism’?

      When a person, presenting himself as ‘progressive’ and ‘liberal’, raises serious protests against the claims of lecturers who insist arithmetics to be a given not to be contested, what kind of world would such thinking create? What if a patient argues with a surgeon with ‘Who do you think you are, to think that you know more than me?’

  • Yuja is organic with the music she performs and her attire is apparently what helps to feel her free and comfortable onstage.
    Maybe one day we will be able to see how time will take its toll and she will wear long classical gowns etc.
    So now it’s time to have fun and enjoy the unbearable lightness of being ( and quite a reasonable royalty to boot 😉

    • Talking about boot(s). She doesn’t feel comfortable in those shoes. She has fun wearing them, but comfort is not why she is wearing them.

        • Because I’m a great admirer of Yuja’s dresses and shoes, I imitate her and have tried the type of shoes she’s wearing at concerts. I go to her concerts for the shoes and the dresses! The music bores me to death but that isn’t the point. I often come at work with her type of high heels and although I struggled on the stairs and fell twice, and come home with aching limbs and feet, it’s worth the efforts! Alas, I’m no longer allowed to wear them at this place since they make little holes in the marble floor & are distracting visitors.

          Sally

      • Her posture is absolutely outstanding though. Watch some videos of her playing while wearing those shoes. She would need to change the way she sits and the way she positions her arms and wrists if she is not wearing 10cm+ stilettos.

  • I recall the same sort reaction to the off the shoulder gowns that Anne Sophie Mutter wore when she entered the scene. How dare she? Harumph! Who really cares? Dress codes have been becoming more relaxed for years. How often do you see conductors come out in white tie and tails these days? Not very often. I am a performing orchestral musician. Even though I have long been acclimated to wearing a tux to perform, I sure welcome any opportunity to dress down for a performance. When I go to a concert I am not paying to see how people dress. I am paying to hear them perform.

    • I *hate* playing in a coat (violinist). I greatly appreciate one of my orchestras where we ditched the coats and play in black shirts and ties instead.

  • The author of this article is clearly a RACIST and SEXIST!!!

    Northwestern University is ‘teaching’ students that this behavior is acceptable.

    It is not!

    No wonder self-absorbed graduates from these institutions fail to get or keep a job due to their prejudices ending up alone and bitter.

  • On Friday I attended a Wigmore Hall recital by the Italian pianist Beatrice Rana. I found her to be a more attractive woman and more interesting artist than Yuja Wang, with a technique to match.

    Rana’s rendering of the Stravinsky piece she finished the recital with was hair raising. Her Bach, Schumann and Albeniz were equally wonderful and profound.

    Mr. Lebrecht, why don’t you cover this superb artist as extensively as you follow Ms. Wang?

    • Rana is excellent, indeed. Funny I was thinking she’s not a superstar material like Wang because her sense of fashion style was less sophisticated than her playing and shse’s got unusual feature. Another pianist I love with a classy outfit is Anna Vinnitskaya. More Chanel than Valentino (or Victoria’s Secret! ) She’s got that classic feature and never shows off her bosom. *Guys* love flashy khatia Buiatishivilli, but I found her whole package distasteful. ( not to mention I am not enthused the way she plays )

      • I realy don’t like khatia Buiatishivilli. She’s agressive in her way to play. Miss Wang it’s better. But I have the impression that Rana and Yeol Eum Son are penalized and it’s unfair.

    • Oh, yes, please, Mr. Lebrecht, cover Mademoiselle Rana!
      And would you please add the equally inspired, radiant Yeol Eum Son?
      Please.

  • For me a concert is special, and I want the performers to dress “special.” This can be white tie and tails like Artur Rubinstein wore 50 years ago or what Yuja wears. What would offend me would be jogging pants or jeans and a T-shirt.

    • The great harpsichordist Scott Ross used to wear jeans and a flannel shirt to perform. I think people in general were offended until the first notes came out and then they forgot all about out.

  • Here we go, the most sensible post you’ll find here:

    Life is too short – why do you care so much? She is not hurting the art form. Certainly not any more than a conservatively dressed terrible pianist.

    So…as has always been…if you like what she has to offer, pay money and go see her. If you don’t….don’t! Capitalism will take care of itself here – she will either sell lots of tickets and be hired over and over again, or she will not and will not, respectively.

    But she is no different than many who have come before her. It is either your thing or it’s not, but, no, she is not disrespectful to the art form, she is not hurting anything, she is just doing her thing. You should really care less.

  • It is astonishing how much the comments here are proving the author’s point. Whether you agree with the author or not, she presents a well-reasoned and compelling argument, and the vitriol launched against her here is unwarranted.

  • I read that there IS an historical reason for the dress code: “When orchestras used to play for noble or ecclesiastical households in the early 18th century, much like other ‘servants’ in the household, they wore a uniform – and that uniform was generally a black-tie tuxedo. ”

    It’s not needed now though. Especially by Yuja.

    • But on paintings from the period depicting concerts at courts, one sees colourful outfits most of the time. Uniforms of ‘personnel’ were colourful to underline the status of the court.

    • The dress code “black tie and tails” is late 19th century and not 18th century. The dress code that orchestra musicians adhere to dates from when orchestras were completely independent of noble/ecclesiastical patronage.

  • At the end of the day the only issue is, how do they play?

    There are a host of extra-musical, or non-musical, visuals going on at just about any concert. A good many of the hand gestures and body contortions of symphony conductors are not really for the musicians’ (or the music’s) benefit. If they were they’d do more of them at the rehearsals, too. Many pianists have developed a series of gestures which I gather are intended to convey notions of extreme sensitivity or some such – the piano keys likely don’t care how gracefully and slowly the hand is elevated after a “magic moment.” Years ago I read a funny article by a guy who always buys tickets with a view of the keyboard – not because he wants to see the fingers but because he can’t stand the contorted facial expressions of most pianists.

    Mischa Elman was said to almost do a pirouette en dehors during some passages. So violinists get into this as well. When my father heard Piatigorsky play he said Piatigorsky smiled so much it was distracting. (Heifetz by contrast said that even if he did smile nobody past the second row could see it anyway so why bother?).

    As for dress, until recently male soloists dressed pretty the same as their colleagues in the orchestra, while female soloists do not, as a rule. One of the first great pianists I heard was Lili Kraus, and even at a rather (I’m trying to be gallant here) advanced age, she was showing a rather alarming quantity of décolletage. And the gown was so large I am not sure how she managed to sit on the bench and play as beautifully as she did.

    How Renée Fleming avoids wardrobe malfunctions I’ll never know.

    And there is a charming video of Ida Haendel showing off her wardrobe of concert frocks and laughing like a little girl.

    Again, if they play well nothing they do or wear can matter much. If they don’t play well, nothing they do or wear can help much. But if they think it really matters, as Melanie Lust seems to, I think they’re in error.

  • Totally disagree. Formal dress was invented for a reason. You come to a concert hall to listen to music, not to be distracted by the musician’s outfit. Being concertgoer for my whole life I didn’t notice huge decline of classical music attendance. True the audience consists of mainly people older than 40. I think the right way to attract younger people to classical music is to lower ticket prices, like it’s done in many concert halls in Europe. There are student prices, EU prices and so on. Really wonderful and famous musicians will never attract audience attention by their outfits.

    • I think you are right, though it’s still a big problem. I have been to many concerts and other high arts performances in Latin America and Asia, in places where ALL the ticket prices are low. The large audiences are from across the democratic spectrum.

      But in the UK and Canada, and to a lesser extent in the US, there are schemes of student pricing, inadequately advertised in student enclaves like universities, that are still failing to draw in younger audiences. This despite schools outreach programmes and the like. If tickets were affordable for the parents as well as the kids, the latter might grow up with a familiarity with the music, as their parents brought it into the home. But I think that battle is lost. The marketing departments won’t wear it.

    • Your reasoning is tautological, not scientific. Your adoption of formal dress is based on the assumption that it will prevent distractions, and then you claim if formal dress is not worn, one will be distracted. Also “really wonderful and famous musicians” most likely will not attract the audience by their outfits, but for the same reason probably will not care what their audience think of what they wear. They do their own things. Anyone who has been to a Yuja Wang concert knows she doesn’t really “care about” her audience that much. She might give six encores if so desired, but does it mainly to amuse herself. That’s why the whole Lebrecht’s Yuja Wang thesis is based on wrong projection, and it is most likely derived from Lebrecht’s rejection of Yuja Wang’s post-Romantic takes on her high romanticism repertoire (evident in her Rachmaninov 2 recording with Abbado). Anyone who thinks his hatred is really about what she wears is a fool.

    • Three factors influence classical music concert attendance:
      Availability of:
      -people with aspiration and education
      -available excess income
      -available spare time

      Surveys among younger people have shown again and again, that they do not wish for a different more relaxed dress code. To the contrary, young people like the ceremonial aspect of classical concerts, the opportunity to get dressed above the daily casual and lift the spirit with being among like minded people and enjoying a concert. That hasn’t changed over the generations.

      Creating audiences happens very much outside of concert halls, in much more fundamental socio-economical contexts.

      • Huh? Almost none of the audience “get dressed” for the concert, at least for any concert I have been to. That is something the musicians do.

        And secondly, many people are wary of going to a classical concert (or the opera) simply because they feel they do not understand the etiquette rules (which includes what to wear).

  • When Olga Kern walks onstage, the audience ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ about the gorgeous gown worn so elegantly by this beautiful woman. Then, she sits down and plays — and suddenly, what she’s wearing becomes secondary. Same with Yuja (only with more skin): There’s an audible reaction to her attire, then the music becomes the center of attention. Frankly, I find Lang Lang’s performing antics to be far more distracting than his choice of velvet tux. Thibaudet used to wear bright red socks — a cute touch that showed his impish personality without distracting from his marvelous playing. Bottom line: eye-catching concert dress is only a temporary distraction.

  • What is always needed is authenticity. There is room for Yuja Wang along with more conventional performers. I have even accepted the musical personality of Patricia Kopatchinskaja, because she is genuine. On the other hand, that fine violinist Nigel Kennedy, through whatever reason, decided to create a new identity for himself in 1980’s, and not a cute one at that. A fake identity which through years of practice became him.

  • Never mind attire helping me express my “identity,” as far as I even have one. I hate performing in clothes that don’t let me play comfortably.

    However, my orchestra has a dress code, like most orchestras, of white tie & tails for “real” concerts (as opposed to pops or movies). In the past, I occasionally had problems in performance because my properly fitting penguin suit made me sweat so the flute slipped on my lip, or I couldn’t get a decent breath. Now I wear a tails jacket that’s too big, with a shirt that’s too big, and a white bow tie that’s too loose. I may look like a hobo, but I can move and breathe.

    By the way, audiences LOVE the white-tie-and-tails look, and HATE anything else — at least according to our audience surveys. We’ve flirted with the idea of a different dress code, but the audience backlash is always too strong. They — or at least, the contingent that responds to the surveys — seem to care more about what we wear than what we play.

  • I try to be dressed for the piece being played. For lighter rep, differently. The attire should match the music and in respect to the composer who took tremendous effort to create the music. In the end, say fifty years or more, they won’t see what you wore when they listen to your recordings. In reality, these times need to be more focused on making sure there is a healthy arsenal of new music so the future can draw upon them. I don’t care what people wear, as long as they know their purpose while briefly here. I like seeing Yuja play old music and new music. It doesn’t matter who loves one’s playing or dislikes it. What is important is that we support them in their purpose, whether on stage or in the studio. We’re all responsible for future players and audiences, not for what they wear. The music is primary. The writer of that article makes a point, but we have to remember it is about the music, not the sexy people playing it. After a while, that gets old, but the music must be good.

  • Well, if you’re trying to make something more sexy, it helps if you can hire someone who has a Yuja Wang. Siza matters, you know? A Smalla Wang isn’t nearly as sexy.

  • Lust has a point. Liberace dressed for self expression. Why not a classical musician? Maybe if Trifonov dressed like Liberace, there would be an added dimension that might make classical music more inviting and more interesting to a wider range of people.

    • Maybe if Trifonov dressed like Liberace, he would play more shows in Las Vegas?
      Now if Las Vegas can be considered an “added dimension” is a matter of taste and perspective. For me Las Vegas is more an incarnation of hell on earth, a material example of much of what is wrong with mankind.
      q.e.d.

  • No question about it – Yuja plays magnificently and responsibly. But her concert attire says “Look at me” rather than “Listen to me”. Certainly she’s got a body from death that she’s extremely proud of and wants to show it off, but too often it’s done at the expense of the dignity of her artistic mission. Many of her outfits are simply tasteless, period. Is she trying to attract listeners or Johns?

  • There seems to be two camps here. Those that say let her wear what she wants. And those that say we want her to wear something “appropriate”.

    • And there are those here who react to the original article, which postulates, that what classical music needs is more visual show.
      Define appropriate! Some use it in the context of describing an ideal of musical perception, which is affected negatively by too much visual distraction, particularly when it tries to stimulate the primal (sexual) instincts. Others use it in a moral codex meaning. Don’t confuse the two.

  • Seriously???? What happened to art for art’s sake (aka MUSIC)? Wearing next to nothing only distracts from the real purpose of a performance – sharing the MUSIC. Proper dress and decorum add to the mystique of the music, to which the performer is a servant. Please leave the hooker clothes on the hook.

  • A bunch of BS! Not any artist looks like Yuja Wang and not any artist has her talent and limitless ability. Besides, whoever her advisors and designers are – they advise and design always in good taste. Multiplied by Wang’smodest stage presence and behavior, she always impresses, whether dressed in mini or in maxi!
    Unlike, say, Khatia Buniatishvili, who is always vulgar not only as a musician, as an artist but also as a highly mannered tasteless quasi model. And she wears a vulgar attire almost always. She really sells only sex.

  • When the press stops writing first about her outfits, then about the music, she will ratchet it up and her next act will be an encore involving a g-string and a pole.

  • I am sorry, but this is an offensive comment. If you what to see burlesque go to a bar. One should not care for costs but music making. Sad. No one encourages men to be more costume oriented to attract a crowd. How sad! I think lang land should start wearing earrings and makeup!

  • For those who don’t like what Yuja (or any musician, in fact) wears, you have two choices:
    1. go to concerts, but close your eyes and listen – don’t be distracted by those things that offend you
    2. stay home and listen to recordings, then you can imagine Richter wearing a miniskirt (he never did, he wasn’t that way inclined), Yuja wearing a trouser suit, Hilary Hahn wearing sackcloth… whatever takes your fancy in the privacy of your own sanctum… leaving concert-going to those of us that actually enjoy it. And if you find conductors’ dress boring don’t even get me started. Muti in his smalls I never want to see, let alone imagine, even though I love the guy and his work.

  • How degenerated are students today. And unoriginal. Does she really think no one has thought of this before? And what hubris to think she can solve “the problem.” She IS the problem.

  • Hi all! I’m the author of this article. I’m 18, obsessed with classical music, and deeply upset by the lack of youth attendance at concerts. Before you go questioning my credibility, I’m a seasoned classical musician, am studying musicology at Northwestern University, and have read several biographies about classical composers. Classical music is my entire life; there is nothing about which I am more passionate.

    I had no idea my article would attract this much attention, and all I have to say is, wow! Even to those of you trying to tear me down for my opinion, I’m so happy that my writing started such an in-depth, widespread conversation. Regardless of how you feel, this is a discussion that needs to be had, so I feel accomplished having started it!

    Thanks for reading my article! Please don’t turn the comment section into a war zone.

    In peace & love & Beethovenian rage,
    Melanie

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