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September 13, 2012

Marin Alsop, BSO launch pilot program with Parsons School to design new concert attire

Could the end of white tie and tails be in sight for orchestra musicians? Will a hip new form of concert attire spread through the classical music world? Stay tuned.

The Baltimore Symphony announced Thursday that music director Marin Alsop has funded a "pilot partnership" with the New York-based Parsons The New School for Design to devise an updated wardrobe for orchestral players in the 21st-century.

The project will involve 16 Parsons students from an interdisciplinary class this semester. They will travel to Baltimore to ...

observe the BSO in action, starting with Friday's season-preview concert at Meyerhoff Hall, so they can "conceptualize a fashionable attire that integrates new fabrics and wearable technologies."

Here's Alsop's statement:

The basic concert black worn by nearly every orchestra across the globe has been the status quo for hundreds of years. It's time to reinvent the modern orchestra. In honor of my friend and mentor, Tomio Taki -- a leader in the fashion industry and Parsons board member -- I've invited the talented students at Parsons to apply their creativity to the concert experience ... Concert attire is just the start. Our goal is to erase any pre-conceived notions of what a concert should look like and create an experience that is as inspiring as the music we perform.

By the end of the class, the students are expected to produce up to 10 prototypes of orchestral attire for men and women.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:09 AM | | Comments (12)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes, Marin Alsop


No! Basic black is inexpensive for us, and we can get those tuxedos from used clothing stores. Creating some new (and required) fashion-designed outfit would add just another expense for musicians who have already seen cuts in salaries, and who must constantly worry about their jobs.

Susan, you're completely missing the point. I'm a professional musician, too, and I think this is a great idea. It will get these students involved with and excited about symphonic music, will generate interest in the community, and will open up the concert experience to people who might otherwise not come because they feel uncomfortable with the environment. This project isn't going to result in you being required to buy some sort of new and expensive uniform. It's merely designed to question the status quo, which the institution of the symphony orchestra and classical music in general desperately needs right now, and to get non-musicians involved in and exciting about what we do.

I'm not a professional musician, but a former BSO subscriber. I agree with the idea of adding a visual element to classical music programs, but putting the musicians in costumes doesn't seem like the right approach.

It might be fun for a series of concerts to have the musicians dressed differently, maybe to get really crazy with led lights sewn into whatever is designed for then that light up when they play...maybe even use it to indicate form.. Marching music is so popular especially among young people because of the visual aspect and perhaps brining a visual element to something so many people find boring would be a way to overcome that stigma.The orchestra should bear the expense for any costuming, or sudsidize it so that each member pays the same, reasonable amount!

I definitely like the idea but couldn't we find a school in Baltimore that could do the design work? MICA is 50 feet from the Meyerhoff.

To me this is almost like outsourcing our Olympic wear to China all over again.

This is further 'dumbing down' of our orchestral art form! The experience is supposed to be an auditory journey...not a graphic or visual entertainment.

The historical black is the best way to focus the listeners attention on the MUSIC. As well, the tradition re-inforces the idea that the 'individual performers' are not the prime concern....apart from the sounds that they create. This is why a soloist may dress in literally stand out from the orchestra. I do believe in entertainment, but please don't confuse it with the fine orchestral art form!

I think the physicality of music making should be acknowledged, and the same people who design the clothing for Olympic athletes should be designing for each and every role in the orchestra.

To Susan, the amount of negative commenting on the motley look of women's stage attire most orchestras receive should persuade you to consider an actual uniform look for the women, as the men have. To Jerome, the notion that people are not looking at the stage (taking only the auditory journey) is just head-in-the-sand unrealistic. Audiences today are more visually oriented than ever before. They want something to look at. The symphonic concert experience doesn't provide enough visual to attract many younger listeners, notwithstanding the magnificence of the music. And altering the stage attire falls a bit short of the dumbing down category, in my opinion; playing cheesy arrangements of pop tunes and video game music is dumbing down. A change in attire doesn't change the music. Close your eyes and I guarantee that you won't notice a difference.

Jerome, I think it was both entertainment and art to begin with. It became something else as things developed (see Henry Wiggins, Adorno). But don't we hear with our eyes too? Let's call this "warming UP" now, whatever brings curious folk to the symphony. It's just a one-off that might point to what becomes the actual next gen. It's part of a process which won't replace the tradition but coexist. We can then choose from there.

I'm pretty sure also a new uniform will call for a coordinated hall color scheme.

The fact that orchestral attire is standardized for men but not women is a historical artifact, just as the tuxedo itself is. It recalls the livery worn by the (male) servants in orchestras hired by nobles. We might as well give up the liveried servant ideal at this point since it isn't a good fit with our world.

Why do we Americans have this impulse to change, tear down, burn up, demolish, rebuild, get rid of, etc anything over 50 years old ? Why?

The Indians have a saying: Let all old things abide.

Now in the 21st century, it is time to eliminate the 19th century costume that only serves as another barrier between symphony music and the modern audience. Nor is it a new idea. Leonard Bernstein had the New York Philharmonic in grey blazers, at least for day time concerts. It's a change that is long overdue and Marin is to be congratulated for seeing the need for this change.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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