In the highly ritualized world of the orchestra, the rules have been established for decades, if not a century or more. The orchestra agrees on an “A”. Beethoven is heard at some point each season. And please, no applause between movements.
And yet, as the Philadelphia Orchestra kicks off its new season this week, it does so with one major violation of lore:
No more white ties and tails.
The whole has become informal, at least relatively speaking. The men in the orchestra now wear a black suit, a black shirt and a long black tie, while the attire of the women has not changed from the current policy of a long black dress, skirt or pants in place. .
Even for special events like opening night on Tuesday night at Verizon Hall and the long-awaited reopening of Carnegie Hall on Wednesday, orchestral musicians will leave white ties and tails in their lockers.
It marks a significant change for an institution that has often swapped the traps of wealth and glamor.
“We have entered the 21st century well. It’s time to recognize it in many ways, and one of them is the appearance of the orchestra on stage, ”said Matías Tarnopolsky, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Some are hoping that an alternative to the white tie and tails will seem more audience-friendly.
“If it makes people more comfortable coming to a concert, that’s a good reason to do so,” says double bass player David Fay, chair of the orchestra’s membership committee.
In an age when orchestras strive to increase inclusion, the white tie and tails “smell of exclusion and elitism, and that should be dismissed,” said Simon Woods , President and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, the industry’s business group. . “I think more and more orchestras will do it.”
Others already are. This season, the New York Philharmonic, temporarily traveling while its house is undergoing renovations, slips into black collared shirts, jackets and no ties for men, and a skirt, dress, or dress pants mid- calf or long-sleeved top for women. The San Francisco Symphony is also trying on a new all-black outfit, optional long black tie.
That white tie and those tails might shrink is precisely the reason many want to keep it.
Longtime Philadelphia Orchestra violinist Boris Balter said he has heard calls for changes in the orchestra’s customs for decades, including the banning of ties and white tails. Still, he finds it “difficult to see how a monochromatic casual dress would lead to increased attendance and income. In my mind, this is another deliberate attempt to suppress what is so unique about this art form. distinctive, ”he said.
“Ending the white tie altogether is a bad idea,” says orchestra boss Robin Mitchell-Boyask. “I don’t buy the idea that musicians should dress like everyone else, because going to a concert is supposed to be a break from normal life.”
“I think it’s a positive move,” says Stanford Thompson, founder and executive director of the Play On Philly after-school music program and a close follower of the orchestra. Thompson says he would love to see a white tie and tails for galas like opening night. But he feels that the look on stage translates into the audience expectations of how they or they can dress, and that the audience should feel free to dress as they wish. “I think more and more the orchestra can lighten up a bit,” he says.
Realistic about the need for change, but still nostalgic, longtime orchestra volunteer May Belle Rauch describes her feelings about the end of the white tie and tails. “There is something about musicians being dressed that gives them a great deal of dignity and a sense of respect that you can appreciate,” she says. “But the music is so beautiful, and that’s obviously the most important thing.”
Tarnopolsky says that if there is “beautiful white tie and tails, it can also create a perception of a barrier between the audience and the musicians, and we want to make sure that this bond is stronger. than ever. This new look aims to strengthen the bond between the audience and the music and musicians. “
A spokesperson for the orchestra said she did not know when the Philadelphians’ tradition of the white tie and tails began. This has been the norm for nighttime concerts for decades, with less formal outfits long used for mornings.
The orchestra rolled out their decision calmly as they prepare to resume regular live performances this season with new pandemic-related protocols. An Inquirer article in May that mentioned the change produced no complaints, Tarnopolsky said.
And in fact, the white tie and tails came out and a more informal look appeared over a year ago with the online concerts the orchestra launched after the pandemic began.
But the possibility of a new concert dress goes back years. It was launched during the tenure of Christoph Eschenbach, the music director from 2003 to 2008, whose signature look was a Nehru collared top.
Current musical director Yannick Nézet-Seguin – who conducted the orchestra’s free concert at Verizon Hall on September 18 in a pair of black Louboutins with red soles and a black “Kimmel Cultural Campus” t-shirt – pleaded for the ban of the white tie and tails , said Tarnopolsky.
The morning suit that the orchestra’s men wore for the mornings, which included a stroller jacket and striped morning pants, became unusable in 2019.
What’s in an outfit anyway? After all, aren’t orchestral concerts all about sound?
“A dress code or uniform provides visual cohesion,” says Clare Sauro, director and chief curator of the Robert and Penny Fox Historical Costume Collection at Drexel University. “If he’s busy with personal expression, it might be confusing or distracting for the audience.”
If it is a uniform, it is durable. As a metaphor for upper-class ambition, it has had no equal.
The basic anatomy: patent leather lace-up shoes or opera pumps are anchor polished, with black pants with a satin band on the sides. A black tailcoat hangs down the back for a long time. At the front, a white waistcoat, called a pique, juts out with two triangular points – but not too far. Studs and cufflinks accent a stiff white evening shirt, and the package is topped with the satin bloom of a white bow tie. (Eau de Cologne splash no.4711 optional.)
The costume’s origins date back to the early 19th century, when “menswear really drew its standard of elegance from Savile Row in London,” says Sauro. “For being poorly dressed at a social occasion, you might be ostracized for wearing a suit from morning to night,” she said. “It was social control. “
The white tie was codified at the end of the 19th century and lasted until the 20th century, she said.
Social babysitting is pretty much the last thing orchestras want to be accused of today, and the Philadelphia Orchestra has, especially in recent seasons, brought social change and the outside world into the art itself. same. Since the #MeToo movement, he has hired more female conductors and composers. New works have largely reflected Black Lives Matter’s message. This month the orchestra premieres Robin Holcomb’s piece paradise, a musical response to the 2018 campfire that devastated Paradise, California (on a program with two Beethoven symphonies).
The orchestra could decide to restore the white tie and tails, but a reversal is unlikely, the orchestra spokesperson said. Even though there is a comeback from a reformatted Academy of Music anniversary concert and ball, the company event in which the orchestra and audience wore white ties, Tarnopolsky s ‘Expect it to be no dress code of white ties and tails.
Of course, there may be ways for the orchestra to retain the particularity of the white tie and tails while easing the hold of its ultra-rich connotations. Drexel’s Sauro suggests a redesigned and modified uniform with a white tie and tail – and that it be adopted by the women of the orchestra as well.
“It would be a nod to the legacy, a nod to the past, but it would be a new beginning. They become equal because they all wear the same thing, ”she says. “It would be so beautiful. It would take away all that angst about what [white tie and tails] ways.”
“It’s a costume that has almost entirely fallen into disuse almost everywhere else in society, so it begs the question, why are we doing it?” Woods said. “For people outside of the orchestral world, it’s incredibly confusing. “
It even puzzles some in the orchestral world. A few seasons ago, a patron of his first Academy of Music concert and anniversary ball was standing in the Academy lobby, marveling at the costume he had donned for the night.
“I have never worn a white tie and tailcoat before,” he said.
The newbie in question was Tarnopolsky.