Classical pianist and YouTube sensation Yuja Wang is making her Celebrity Series of Boston debut on Friday night, and there is some debate in the classical world about whether or not the dresses she wears make for proper attire.
What do you think? Should it matter what a classical pianist wears while performing?
Plays Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3, aka Rach 3, one of the most difficult songs to play in the world, the notes on the sheet music is described as being so dense it looks like a phonebook.
World shits itself because of what she’s wearing.
The world would rip a woman to shreds over her socks before daring to acknowledge her accomplishments.
I have a lot of mixed feelings about this. And I’m not sure how patriarchal some of them are, so PLEASE CALL ME OUT.
First, it really sucks that people care about what she wears. Like, honestly, she should wear what she wants to her performances.
There is a big problem, though, with the sexualization of classical performers, with lots of different facets. Opera stars are getting younger and sexier, the former causing HUGE PROBLEMS. Opera stars need to be older to have voices developed enough for certain roles. They will kill their voices singing roles they are not ready for, full stop.
But she’s not a singer, she’s a pianist. Age doesn’t matter (aside from maturity, but what is that even?)
But there’s an equivalent problem with marketing. As someone who buys a lot of classical music, I pay close attention to recommendations of other musicians and who is being sold in what way. You know what I hear about Yuja Wang? Nothing about her clothes; I hear about how she has no idea how to interact with an ensemble, how she feels like the focus should be entirely on her, how she thinks sitting in front of an orchestra gives her the ability to do whatever she wants. There is a strong chance that a lot of that is sexist, of course; that an attractive woman shouldn’t understand the artform in the same way saggy white men should.
But there’s also something to be said for the fact that she’s being marketed as an attractive Asian woman. This very controversy could, in fact, be a marketing ploy to draw attention to her because of how sexy she is dressing.
It’s super complicated for me. I want to trust that she is a good musician; the fact that she can play Rach 3 is a huge feather in her cap. But I also trust the reviewers. But I also don’t, because people compelled to review are usually elitist. I don’t know who to believe on this and I hope someone is willing to discuss it with me.
Ok, I have a lot of feelings about this, so let me try to summarize them. Let me start by saying I am a 24-year-old white cis woman. I have a bachelor’s degree in violin performance and one in music education, and I now teach orchestra in a public school (which is why I got the degree in performance, so don’t go telling me I am only jealous because I couldn’t make it. It has never been my goal to perform.) Ok, there is your context. Here is how I would weigh in on the subject.
1. Her age. “Child prodigies” ceased to interest me a long time ago. Though, having the chops (and the balls) to perform Rach 3 at her age is admirable. Personally, I’m not impressed by her age, and I think the classical music world needs to stop being impressed by it, too. When are we going to stop caring that thirteen-year-olds can play Tchaikovsky? Yes, it’s impressive, but a thirteen-year-old isn’t going to be able to relate to the themes in Tchaikovsky’s music, to what drove him to write the anguish he did. And getting excited about child prodigies just puts them on display – watch the monkey dance. I’d rather hear good, heartfelt music being made by good musicians. So can we please stop talking about it?
2. Her professionalism. There are a lot of really talented young pianists in the world who would love to be in her position right now, so if she treats people like crap, that is a waste of a great opportunity. Personally, I would rather see someone who is in it for the music than personal gain. If you remember our Joshua Bell/Itzhak Perlman conversation, it’s the same thing. Itzhak Perlman obviously loves music, and that makes him so much more fun to watch and listen to than someone vested in his own fame, like Joshua Bell. Is it possible that the reviews you talk about are caused by sexism? Yes. But it is also very possible that she really is not very professional as a musician. A lot of virtuosos aren’t, especially child prodigies. When you’ve been told repeatedly how amazing and special you are since you were 11, it isn’t surprising that you don’t know how to be a team player. Either way, being a jerk to ensembles has never stopped a virtuoso from having a successful career before, and I doubt it will now.
3. Her gender. Classical music, especially for instrumental virtuosos, has long been and continues to be a male-dominated world. (It is also a white-dominated world. I know there are important things to be said about that, too, but I feel that I can’t really say them, or wouldn’t know how. But I am going to talk about Hilary Hahn later, and her career has almost certainly been easier because she is white, so the comparison is not completely fair)
When it comes to clothes, men have it a lot easier: the only decision they need to make is what kind of suit to wear. A woman performing as a virtuoso could choose to wear a suit (doesn’t she look like she’s headed to a business meeting?), the traditional all black of the orchestra (she’s not doing herself ANY favors with that outfit), or the elaborate evening gown (she’s just showing off). WE CAN’T WIN. You are going to judge what we wear no matter what it is. For myself, as long as it doesn’t distract from the music, it is fine. If you are distracted by the dresses Yuja wears (and we have ALL seen much shorter), it is your problem, not hers.
When I saw Joshua Bell live, I complained to my colleagues that his shirt was untucked – it looked sloppy and unprofessional to me. But hardly anyone else cared. And he was sold as a “soulful” (aka “sexy for women”) artist, and nobody seemed bothered by it then.
As I’ve said once already, Yuja has a lot of competition. A lot of what determines which young artists have successful careers is luck. Truth is, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other Yuja Wangs out there, but SHE is the one who is making a career for herself. I honestly couldn’t blame her for using her attractiveness as a marketing strategy. It may be deliberate on her part, it may be agents and the like, or it may simply be that she is an attractive young woman who likes looking attractive. Should that be a reason not to appreciate her musical abilities?
4. Her real, actual abilities as a musician. She obviously has a great deal of skill and talent. But in watching a couple of interviews with her, I have been really disappointed with how she presents herself when she talks about music. It’s like she is trying to sound vapid (see this one with PBS http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6hE0gluq3X4) Of course, it is always possible that she is being directed to present herself this way. Either way, it does make me question her maturity and her ability to interpret the heavy works she plays.
As a woman in the classical music world, I look at someone like Hilary Hahn. She was a child prodigy, but she hasn’t stagnated. She has continued to grow and develop as a musician, perform classical music, film scores, and recently collaborating on improvisational work with Hauschka. When she talks about music, she isn’t talking about herself: she is talking about music. I truly believe she loves what she does, and that she has navigated a male-dominated world very well. (Again, the fact that she is white is also most likely helping her).
Yuja Wang is DEFINITELY being marketed as a sexual young woman, and it is DEFINITELY helping her career. Do I care? Not really. But from watching her few interviews, I do care that she seems to be in it more for herself than for the love of music. I also care that she might not treat other musicians well. She plays very well, but so do lots of other artists. At the moment, I think I will opt for maturity. But I don’t begrudge her the career she has, not for a moment.