Concert Attire: What’s the Big Deal

by James Dunham

It is very tempting to dismiss proper attire for concerts with a wave of the hand and see it as a boring bother. After all, we in classical music have been trying for years to show our audiences that we are, in fact, just people like them and to make the concert stage less of a divide between “us” and “them.” We have even come under considerable criticism for our seemingly stuffy and “out-dated” white tie and tails or tuxedo outfits and the black or gem-colored gowns for women.

Let’s think about the bigger picture for a moment, though. A concert, whatever the musical style, is an event, a presentation, an offering. When creating something of importance for our families, our friends, our public, it is always important to create an atmosphere of anticipation, of excitement, of sharing. By dressing appropriately for any particular concert, this includes our own sense of ownership, our respect for our audience, and most importantly, our respect for the composer!

Formal vs. informal:

Are there widely varied styles of appropriate attire? Of course there are! Charith Premawardhana,  one of my former students, has created an organization called Classical Revolution, which now has chapters around the U. S. Presentations range from true concerts of rehearsed chamber works in unusual venues to Facebook calls to meet at a given bar or restaurant simply to read chamber music for the assembled clientele! I suppose you could wear a tuxedo if you wanted to, but you are really more likely to see blue jeans and casual clothes.

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Here I am with Classical Revolution founder Charith Premawardhana at a recent event in Houston!

But a major concert in a major city? While tuxes, tails, and gowns are sometimes seen as a bit too much, when done well, a fine outfit, say, with a great summer white tuxedo can still look very sharp! Please allow me to show off just a bit: here I am backstage at the Aspen Music Festival, where white tuxedos are still very much in evidence. With me are dapper Gil Shaham, glorious Sabina Thatcher, and the elegant David Halen!

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Me, Gil Shaham, Sabina Thatcher, David Halen

All Black:

It has become very common to wear all black for concerts, sometimes with a jacket for men, sometimes without, with or without a tie. We often call it “New Music Black,” since it is frequently the “uniform” for contemporary concerts. It works, looks appropriate, and can also be more comfortable for works requiring extended techniques of all kinds!

While this next photo isn’t the crispest, I thought you would enjoy seeing the participants, all in black. Ivo van der Werff and I were invited to play a viola quartet in Boston to help celebrate composer John Harbison’s seventieth birthday. Here we are with Marcus Thompson and John himself, who insisted on playing Viola 4 in his own viola quartet, Cucaraccia and Fugue!!

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Ivo van der Werff, Marcus Thompson, John Harbison, me

Suits: Ties or no ties?

Frequently, a business suit for men and an elegant dress for women is a common performance outfit. Ties, especially for ‘cellists and upper string players, can interfere with the way we interact with our instruments. A nicely buttoned shirt can look fine with a suit, or in the case of Paul Kantor in the picture below, there are elegant alternatives.

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Paul Kantor, Frank Huang, Ling-Ling Huang, Evelyn Chen, Brinton Smith, me

I confess, I did have an issue with a recent concert that I heard. The male members of this ensemble came out to perform in a professional concert in a major U. S. concert hall, wearing suits. To my dismay, while they were wearing appropriate ties, the top buttons of their shirts were open, and the ties were loosened to about three inches down their shirt front. It looked like what one does after the concert, back in the dressing room. It felt, to me, like cavalier disrespect of the audience, the venue, the composer, and, ultimately, themselves. Concerned about my potential “old fogey” factor, I checked with my own Studio. Luckily, everyone agreed that this felt very inappropriate for this particular circumstance.

A very positive incident took place at a chamber concert that I played recently. I had chosen to wear all black, with jacket, and a glorious red tie that my wife had presented to me. To my delight, a group of children surrounded me at intermission! Greatly impressed by the concert, they were even more impressed by my tie!

Girl one: “Can I touch your tie??”

Girl two: “You can’t ask that!!”

Me: “Of course you can ask it, and of course you can touch it!!”

A little too much excitement for an iPhone photograph, but you get the picture: classical music is alive and well!

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A final story:

I heard of a master class given by the great Pablo Casals. It was at a summer festival, un-air conditioned, hot and humid, in the days when coat and tie were the only way to go. The performer, nervous and sweaty, asked the maestro if he might take off his jacket before he played. The reply from Pablo Casals? “Why, of course: anything you would do in a concert . . .”

We have come a long way since those days!

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