&ldquoAs Alsop faced the cellos and drew from them the most tremendously shaped phrases with every inflection of her baton, you were aware of being in the presence of greatness.&rdquo
5th June 2013

Classical music refashioned

The first thing that all the involved parties quickly emphasised about the collaboration between Parsons the New School for Design and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is that no one had any idea what to expect, where the partnership might take them or what they might do with the information they gathered. The design teacher, the tech guru, the college deans, the symphony conductor and the students had no clear endgame.

But for the past year, about three dozen students and their mentors have explored the possibility of transforming the way in which classical players dress and the way in which an audience experiences their music. For conductor Marin Alsop, it was a chance to reimagine what it means to go hear – and see – her orchestra. “I don’t know where it will lead, but I think it’ll be exciting,” she enthuses.

The project began when Alsop started thinking about how an orchestra exists in the 21st century and what it might mean to future generations. But instead of fixating on the instruments, the acoustics of a concert hall or the musicians’ repertoire, she was interested in the wardrobe.
“I’ve always noticed how the men in orchestras struggle with tails,” says Alsop. “It’s a lot of clothing, and it’s quite constricting, and it can get hot. And for the women, it’s hard for them to know what to wear. I was thinking, ‘Where are we headed with an orchestra in the 21st century?’ I don’t want to change the music, but the trappings? We’re wearing the same clothes we were wearing 200 years ago. It might be time for an update.”

The student designers were challenged to make the musicians’ clothes more contemporary and relevant. They don’t just want to redesign the garments; they want to rethink them. For example, they want to illustrate the energy output of a drum-beating percussionist and a fast-fingered pianist during a particularly exuberant passage of music. What if the arm movements activated lights or video on a back screen? What if they illuminated the performer’s actual garment? What if they changed the colour of the clothes, like some giant musical mood ring? What if they could activate some sort of projection on the outside of the venue itself so that passersby could experience the performance taking place inside, making a private, elite experience a public one?

This high-concept design project could have been an episode of Project Runway. At least that’s how Alsop originally pitched it in a moment of daring, whimsy and a little too much reality television. But how did the conductor of the BSO manage to connect with Joel Towers, the dean of Parsons’ fashion school? Alsop had a fan and supporter in a member of its board of governors. One might think that friend would be someone like board member Sheila Johnson, who is part of the area’s social and philanthropic world. Or one of the other board members who dabble in the universe of fine arts of which classical music is a part. But no, the link in the chain was Tomio Taki, the Japanese fashion mogul who once owned Anne Klein and who launched Donna Karan into the design stratosphere Alsop’s longtime mentor. And he doesn’t even particularly like classical music.

“I had a string swing band and I played at his wedding at the Pierre,” Alsop says. “I was in my 20s and he helped me start my first orchestra. I wanted to be a conductor, and I decided the only way that was going to happen was to found my own orchestra. So I called him and said: ‘You might think I’m insane, but I want to be a conductor, and I need help building a board…’ This guy who barely knew me said: ‘Absolutely.’ He gave me financial support, career advice. He’s a prince of a person.”

Taki helped her found the Concordia Orchestra in 1984. And when she called him about her design idea, he put her in touch with Towers. “This is my area,” Taki says. “I thought it could be an interesting co-operative.”

So what do we believe about classical music? The current, traditional costuming suggests that it is a kind of museum experience. And that’s what Alsop wanted to shake. “It should be classical, but with an edge. We’re striving for an inspired, transcending experience with the audience,” she says.

At last month’s performance, the audience waited expectantly as students rolled out a grand piano wrapped in white muslin, positioning it against a white screen. Then Mannes student Shulin Guo – cloaked in a white muslin and satin gown with a pleated cape – began to play William Bolcom’s The Serpent’s Kiss.

Yellow and ivory animated squares fractured like a cubist painting across the piano, the screen and the performer herself. Fuchsia waves flowed into orange swirls as her playing crescendoed. Slashes of white lights flashed along with her staccato rhythms. Green serpents slithered and dived around her as the melody rose and fell, quickened and slowed. And as she reached the dramatic finale – the heart-stopping spiral into the deepest, warmest bass notes – black and white brush strokes exploded around the room, like a Robert Motherwell or Franz Kline canvas being torn to shreds. The crowd cheered. An endgame was revealed. What if?

“I could see us doing a late-night contemporary concert with this, doing something more avant-garde,” Alsop said after the applause ended and the audience moved on to cocktails. “I think it would be very, very cool.”