- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 3, 2007

All eyes were on Jean-Yves Thibaudet when the pianist walked onto the Kennedy Center stage earlier this season.

It wasn’t simply because the audience wanted to hear the artist’s sensitive interpretations of fellow Frenchmen Debussy and Messiaen. No, one couldn’t help but stare at Mr. Thibaudet because of how he looked.

Call it classical chic.

The pianist is one of a growing number of classical musicians who are partnering with fashion designers. They are part of a new generation of image-conscious concert artists who are bringing style, attitude and sex appeal to what was long viewed as a somewhat fusty vocation.

On tour, Mr. Thibaudet exclusively wears the designs of Vivienne Westwood, one of the most creative — some say outlandish — of couturiers. For his Kennedy Center appearance, sponsored by the Washington Performing Arts Society, he wore an ensemble that, if you looked very closely, resembled a tuxedo. There was nothing traditional about Mr. Thibaudet’s outfit, however, which featured close-fitting pants with a distinctive stripe down the side and a tie something like a bolo, but much more modern.

The first line of the press release for his appearance made a note of his “fashionable performance ensembles.”

“It’s just combining one beautiful thing with another,” says Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt of the convergence of high culture and haute couture. Miss Hewitt played in Baltimore last year, and the way she looked was almost as striking as her playing. The elegant pianist wore a stunning teal gown.

Miss Hewitt soon begins a Bach world tour, playing the complete Well-Tempered Clavier in well over 100 performances in 25 countries. For the first time, she’ll have a design sponsor, Richard Robinson. “I just want to give him some worldwide publicity,” she says of choosing a fellow Canadian.

While she enjoys dressing up, she does have some words of caution for beginning artists. “A lot of the young kids are pushed out of their cocoon, and an image is forced upon them,” she says. “It’s a little bit depressing when young people are subjected to obviously fabricated publicity campaigns.”

Lisa Kaplan, pianist for the hip contemporary music ensemble Eighth Blackbird, says her performance garb reflects her own personality, rather than a marketer’s.

“Whether it’s a short, ruched black dress with maroon fishnets and boots, or a sleek, black tank with camouflage pants detailed at the edges in silk, I’d say that I definitely put a lot of thought into my onstage persona,” she says. “I view my performance clothes more like costumes that help put me in the right frame of mind for our concerts.”

Clothing is just part of the package in an industry trying to reach new listeners. “Classical musicians are in the entertainment business,” Miss Kaplan says. “Wardrobe, lighting, sound — we have to think about all of these factors, especially if classical music has any hope of luring young people into their concert halls.”

Albert Imperato, with 20 years in the business, has watched classical become more chic. He is founding partner of 21C Media Group, a New York classical music marketing firm.

“Artists are more comfortable saying, ‘I like a certain look’ or ‘A certain style makes me comfortable,’ without it casting any aspersions on the seriousness of their talent,” he says.

Not that there aren’t holdouts, mind you. “Artists who don’t care, don’t care in a big way,” Mr. Imperato adds.

Tanya Bannister notes those indifferent to fashion are often men.

“These are all strange, funny-looking men, but then they come out and are amazing artists, so it doesn’t really matter,” the 29-year-old pianist laughs.

Men and women alike are paying more attention to their appearance. “People are wanting to present a young, fresh, sexy image that’s also serious as well,” she says. “With CD covers, the big names are pop-like in their presentation sometimes.”

The fashionable Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes has an ongoing business relationship with Japanese designer Issey Miyake. “I think classical music needs to show that it is music also for the future, and therefore I dislike the constant old-fashioned clothing,” he says, citing the typical tux and tails.

Daniel Hope agrees, noting men don’t have the options women do. But the British violinist, who just signed an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon, doesn’t see classical chic as necessarily new. “Paganini was one of the first to cultivate his demonic image, with long hair, flowing black cape and long fingernails,” he notes.

Mr. Hope thinks artists are wise to pay attention to image. “Whether one appreciates the sentiment or not, few people would disagree that a great majority of the audience hears with their eyes,” he says. “Therefore if your appearance is untidy or even sloppy, then you run the risk of a portion of the audience applying that to your playing.”

Still, he cautions, image-making alone is not enough to expand classical music’s commercial appeal: “You’re not going to get any younger listeners to come to your concerts simply because your clothes are cool.”

Steven Shaiman is senior vice president at Concert Artists Guild, which has an annual competition to discover young talent. “Once they win, one of the first things we do is sit down with them and discuss marketing and photographs,” he reports.

By the time artists reach a certain level in their careers, “the level of music making and talent is universally high,” he explains. “So what’s going to set this artist apart from all the other great artists out there? Very often, it’s the visual.”

It seems that not even one of the highest of art forms is immune from celebrity culture.

“The audience wants to get some insight into who that artist is as a person,” Mr. Shaiman says. “In recitals, artists are breaking down that barrier and talking. Audiences expect an interactive experience.”

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