The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music poll: Was Yuja Wang’s concert skirt too short? What is inappropriate concert attire for a performer, male or female? | August 17, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

This isn’t the first time the Internet has been abuzz about the young, 24-year-old Beijing-born piano virtuoso and former prodigy Yuja Wang (below), who trained at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.

The deeply talented and award-winning Wang, whose repertoire runs from Scarlatti to Ligeti (check her out on YouTube)  is especially renowned for her astounding technique, which helped her garner a Grammy nomination with her first Deutsche Grammophon  CD, “Sonatas and Etudes” and which also played a big role on her second CD, “Transformations” (which featured Stravinsky’s “Petroushka” and Brahms’ finger-twisting “Paganini” Variations) and her third CD with two Rachmaninoff concertos.

Wang also has performing nerves of steel and  has developed a solid reputation as the go-to person for last-minute fill-in appearances when another pianist has to cancel because of illness. Invariably she draws rave reviews. And when you listen to her playing, you can understand why. It is clear and self-assured, both accurate and musical.

But now the glamorous and attractive, photogenic and charismatic performer is in the headlines for another reason.

She recent wore a very short reddish-orange micro-skirt when performing Rachmaninoff’s killer Third Piano Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. (below).

Did it add to her allure or appeal?

Did it distract from the music and her performance? And if it did, whose fault is that?

You can make up your own mind.

Here are some columns about it — and be sure to read the comments they drew from readers:

http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2011/08/music-review-yuja-wang-lionel-bringuier-at-the-hollywood-bowl.html

http://blogs.laweekly.com/westcoastsound/2011/08/hot_pianist_has_folks_hot_and.php

http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/which-offends-her-short-dress-or-critics-narrow-view/2011/08/10/gIQAMvtOBJ_story.html

And here is an interesting and well reason, balanced response by publicist and artists’ agent Amanda Ameer about the controversy:

http://www.artsjournal.com/lifesapitch/2011/08/does-your-mother-know-that-youre-out/

http://www.thestandard.com.hk/news_detail.asp?we_cat=21&art_id=114235&sid=33413652&con_type=1&d_str=20110817&fc=2

One thing is for sure: The resulting publicity can’t hurt Yuja Wang’s career in the highly competitive world of classical music or her number of bookings, except perhaps in the Mideast and Utah.

Of course The Ear also wonder if a man could get away with something similar – say, like Liberace wearing hot pants. How tasteful that was!

And is there a sexist double-standard at work in concert fashion as well as in writing about fashion in the political and social spheres?

I remember that pianist Olga Kern drew comments about her red backless dress when she performed in Madison. But I can’t remember the last time someone commented on a male performer’s dress?

What do you think about Yuja Wang and her controversial dress?

Send in your vote.

Does a sexist double standard exist when it comes to men’s attire during a performance?

The Ear wants to hear.

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Posted in Classical music

21 Comments »

  1. [...] Well-Tempered Ear is conducting a poll about what “appropriate” concert attire would look like, and rightfully addresses the [...]

    Pingback by » Blog Archive » Thoughts on Beauty in Classical Music — August 24, 2011 @ 2:00 pm

  2. [...] Well-Tempered Ear is conducting a poll about what “appropriate” concert attire would look like, and rightfully addresses the [...]

    Pingback by » Blog Archive » Thoughts on Beauty — August 23, 2011 @ 10:14 pm

  3. Here is the “fashion judgment” that Anthony Tomassini of NY Times inserted in his 2008 review of Leif Andsnes’ performance of the Brahms B-flat concerto:

    “Mr. Andsnes played the piece while seated calmly, never bothering to unbutton his stylish suit jacket.”

    Article link:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/19/arts/music/19phil.html?scp=1&sq=tomassini%20andsnes%20jacket&st=cse

    Comment by Boom — August 23, 2011 @ 2:32 pm

    • Hi Boom,
      Thanks for reading and replying.
      I myself prefer less flashy concert dress.
      But the glam look certainly works.
      Just look at all the attention Yuja Wang has received so early in her career.
      I also expect Tommasini made his fashion comment because the calm, unbuttoned demeanor contrasts so sharply with the very strenuous and hard-to-play concerto.
      But men and women performers always dress differently and are held by critics and audiences to different standards, no?
      Best,
      Jake

      Comment by welltemperedear — August 23, 2011 @ 4:00 pm

  4. Who was the first female soloist and what did she wear? It seems as long as I’ve seen female soloists in concert playing concertos or recitals, they’ve always worn very elegant evening wear. Maybe some players are trying to get away from that a bit. The whole thing with Hilary playing barefoot may be a way of going against that as well.

    Comment by Chris McGovern — August 19, 2011 @ 8:19 pm

  5. I love this discussion. But you know what was distracting for me? Attending a Berlin S.O. concert, when I was an exchange student many years ago, and *not* being distracted by female performing attire simply because there were no females onstage, at all. I believe it was the Vienna Phil that held out the longest, not accepting female instrumentalists. That really distracts my attention, and continues to do so.

    But female (or male) musicians having fun/making a statement/expressing themselves, via concert attire? I think about it as they walk on and offstage, and I do think it attracts a possibly-otherwise-marginally-interested population. But as soon as the player starts making music, it’s the chops, not the shops, that count.

    Comment by Marika Fischer Hoyt — August 19, 2011 @ 4:46 pm

    • Hi Marika,
      As always, you bring a new perspective and make an excellent point.
      Absence can indeed be the biggest distraction of all.
      Thanks for reading and commenting.
      Jake

      Comment by welltemperedear — August 19, 2011 @ 5:26 pm

      • Well, if we’re debating the merits of the painting vs. the frame, I also think of the experiment Joshua Bell participated in, where he played, in jeans, unannounced and unbilled, in a D.C. subway station to see who would stop and listen, for free, to this violin superstar who usually commands a hefty fee. As I understand his account, it was a humbling experience.

        Comment by Marika Fischer Hoyt — August 19, 2011 @ 10:31 pm

      • Yes, I saw that, although I wonder if more people would have stopped to listen if he’d worn Yuja’s dress. ;)

        Comment by Chris McGovern — August 19, 2011 @ 11:35 pm

  6. I think she looks great and like a rock star. Interesting, edgy dress and hair, but not at all trashy! I don’t think her dress detracts from her performance. Just like the ladies on the professional tennis circuit, their attire doesn’t detract from their performance, does it? I think the legs are quite prevalent there as well. I remember that last year at the US Open, Serena Williams showed up in quite a glittery uniform. Commentators were talking about that one for quite a while.

    Comment by Katrina Querriera — August 18, 2011 @ 12:51 pm

    • Hi Katrina,
      Your points are all good ones.
      But for me the question is not about whether she looks trashy, but whether it is distracting.
      A concert is not a sporting event, after all.
      And the idea of using rock star appeal in the world of classical music may say something about the cultural climate we live in, no?
      But she does look great.
      Thanks for reading and replying.
      Jake

      Comment by welltemperedear — August 18, 2011 @ 3:47 pm

      • By saying “not at all trashy” I didn’t have in mind your post’s discussion, but just that it’s sometimes easy for women wearing that short of a hemline to be labeled that way by anyone, no matter what the venue.

        Comment by Katrina Querriera — August 20, 2011 @ 4:04 pm

      • I think if Yuja doesn’t set the pace, who will? Maybe it takes this kind of uproar for there to be a natural changeover so that other people can wear what they want and concert-goers eventually get over that and everyone goes their merry way.

        Comment by Chris McGovern — August 20, 2011 @ 4:54 pm

  7. Yuja Wang’s dress had nothing to do with how she performed, and if I was in that concert hall it would have made no difference in how I would have perceived the performance. The issue of dress in a concert hall is a superficial one. Choirs and orchestras may have dress codes to unify the visuals for the ensemble, but is Wang’s mini-skirt any different than an elaborate and garish gown that many a soprano diva has worn in the centuries of Messiah performances (for example) that one could argue detracts away from the music because it stands out so much. Ultimately, the matter of dress comes down to ones who want to detract away from the music and make it an issue.

    Consequently, there are societal questions that arise from this as well, as “sex appeal” could be an argument to attracting an audience and creating this exact sort of controversial attention. I don’t disagree with that, and yes her name will be in the press for a while, but her traits as an extraordinary musician will outweigh the controvery around a dress. And a few years down the road, especially if this was an isolated incident, this dress will be completely forgotten, but her musicianship and technicial abilities will be remembered.

    Comment by Kenneth Kusiak — August 18, 2011 @ 10:16 am

    • Hi Ken,
      I don’t think anyone can argue well against what you say.
      But I also suspect this may be not the last time we hear of such an incident.
      Certainly, Yuja Wang is a major talent with lasting power.
      Jake

      Comment by welltemperedear — August 18, 2011 @ 10:59 am

  8. Yes, I know Jake, but don’t you think that female soloists would be wearing tuxes if there wasn’t a demand for a sexed-up image on the stage in the first place? Personally,.I’d be just as happy if the performers just wore casual neat and played the music, but that’s just me.

    Comment by Chris McGovern — August 17, 2011 @ 11:15 pm

    • Hi Chris,
      Yes, I completely agree with you.
      Let’s all focus on the music, on-stage and off-.
      There’s no reason to make it a fashion runway or cat-walk.
      But the controversy and ensuing publicity can’t hurt her career, wanna bet?
      Too bad it’s that way today.
      Jake

      Comment by welltemperedear — August 18, 2011 @ 5:41 am

  9. It’s funny how suddenly Yuja Wang’s legs are an issue. I guess nobody in the press ever noticed that Hilary Hahn has done certain concerts barefoot (I can say this with great certainty because I was there to see it), although she says she did that because her shoes were making holes in the dress when she stepped on the hemline. Perhaps this is the reason Yuja is wearing shorter dresses, maybe she’s on to something, and other female soloists will follow suit?

    Comment by Chris McGovern — August 17, 2011 @ 6:19 pm

    • Hi Chris,
      You have a great story.
      I don’t think it’s the legs that are the issue here.
      And playing barefoot is one thing.
      But the trend is indeed toward using sex appeal to sell music.
      No?
      Jake

      Comment by welltemperedear — August 17, 2011 @ 10:49 pm

  10. How did it affect the music? Does it matter that Rollie Fingers had a mustache? How did that affect his pitching. Same with this.

    Comment by George Hesselberg — August 17, 2011 @ 3:20 pm

    • Hi George,
      Thanks for reading and replying. I can always count on you to get to the heart — or whatever it is — of the matter.
      From what I see of the reviews, it didn’t affect her playing adversely at all.
      Whether it affected how other listeners perceived her playing is still open to question — and I’ll bet some people in the audience, especially with mustaches, were indeed distracted.
      Just a guess.
      But otherwise I’m with you, even though Rollie Fingers’ mustache was not rated R or X.
      How about this question: If she played in the nude — like avant-garde cellist Charlotte Moorman did in the 1960s — would it matter as long as it didn’t affect the music?
      Don’t you just love where promotion, PR, marketing and advertising are taking us these days? Just look at classical CD covers for more proof that The Babe Aesthetic sells.
      C’mon, all: I’d love to hear from some more readers.
      Best,
      Jake

      Comment by welltemperedear — August 17, 2011 @ 3:41 pm


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