A couple of years ago the writer Greg Sandow, who discusses the state and fate of classical music on artsjournal.com, alerted his readers to the emergence of an audacious new feature in MUSO, a magazine based in the UK that writes about the classical music world the way Spin writes about rock & roll. In MUSO's online version, Sandow heralded, is a section called "G Spot," which features a list of fans picks for sexiest soloists, with pictures and commentary.
For example, violinist Joshua Bell is described to be "As American as apple pie and just as tasty." Pianist H_lne Grimaud is praised for her "gamine gaze." Room is left for praise of the artists' musicianship, "supreme skills across an extraordinary range of repertoire" and "steely pianistic strength," but the message MUSO spreads is that having one gift does not belie the other. And, more importantly, classical can be hot.
Classical music is declared dead, usually with deep regret, by some astute and erudite critic on a regular basis. And just as it is declared dead, it is passionately declared alive and well by another astute and erudite critic‹usually the next day. Death and resurrection is a great theme of religion and literature, but a steady dose of it can be emotionally depleting, especially if it happens to be your art form being compared to Lazarus. Within the chronicling of the death-life continuum of classical music, at least one fact is inarguable: classical music's presence near the center of popular culture has diminished considerably over (at least) the last two decades.
Consider this: Beverly Sills not only appeared on the cover of Time magazine and frequently sang on The Ed Sullivan Show, she served as a guest host on the Tonight show, filling in for Johnny Carson and trading late-night quips with Ed McMahon. Guest host, not just guest. Perhaps the only classical music stars that would come close to such pop-culture status today would be Placido Domingo, Yo-Yo Ma, and, the new savior of classical music, Gustavo Dudamel. But even those three are a big maybe.
Classical music's move to the margins of popular culture came about for a lot of reasons‹too numerous and disputable to discuss here‹but let's entertain one phenomenon that occurred in the larger culture that left the classical crowd behind: Sex, or, more precisely, sexy.
Take a look around. It's everywhere. The motto "sex sells" has turned clich_. How many major studio projects‹whether in the music, film, or television industries‹receive a green light without sex appeal? And even in the arts that don't gravitate toward the mass audience‹theater, literature, visual art‹sexy helps. The painter/sculptor Frank Stella put it best: "...if it's not sexy, it's not art. Everyone knows that." He said that when he gave his Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard, by the way. Even Harvard gets it.
Sex is everywhere in popular culture, except for here, in the concert hall. Or just barely.
It hasn't always been this way. One night while channel surfing I discovered an old movie with Ida Lupino and Paul Henreid, a piece of romantic fluff called In Our Time from 1944. Lupino plays a shopkeeper, Henreid a Count. You can figure out the story, but, how does the lowly shopkeeper attract the worldly aristocrat? In the antique store the radio plays Chopin. He insists it's the composer's first piano concerto. Oh, no, she says, it's his second. Henried is playing a Polish count, so he should know. But then she moves to the piano in the parlor‹there's always a piano in the parlor‹and plays it. See? He's in love.
Chopin as means of seduction. If this sounds far-fetched and of another time, consider the famous discussion of pinot noir between Paul Giamatti and Virginia Madsen in Sideways. He's a wine snob, she's a waitress. But when he realizes she is a true connoisseur, "I like to think about the life of the wine," she says, he's smitten (after a few complications).
Connoisseurship is cool, at least that of the palate. It doesn't hurt that Madsen is stunningly beautiful (Giamatti doesn't have to be, it's a male movie fantasy). Lupino was quite the looker too, Henreid dashing. Sex appeal is a given in most performing arts. In the concert hall, however, if a female artist reveals a hint of d_colletage, or wears an alluring strapless number, critics will often question her playing abilities. It's puzzling. Nobody ever suggested that Beyonc_ dress down.
Even as I try to discuss this subject as it pertains to guest artists appearing with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra in April and May, I encounter dilemmas. If I, for example, mention Leila Josefowicz's history as a Chanel model, or that MUSO praises her "sex-kitten looks," am I downplaying her considerable virtuosic skills? If I observe that Leonidas Kavakos went for a dark-and-brooding look in his recent publicity photos, am I implying that he is pandering to non-musical tastes?
What they deserve is praise: Way to go. Sex it up.
Leila Josefowicz performs the works of Steven Stucky, John Adams and Beethoven with SLSO April 25-27. Leonidas Kavakos performs a program of Stravinsky, Bach and Mendelssohn from May 2 through 4.
Eddie Silva is the publications manager of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.