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Classical musicians are finding variations on a traditional theme and discovering their own sense of style

Maybe it’s because there are more women on the concert stage.

Maybe it has something to do with society’s obsession with sex.

Then again, it could be simply that people feel they deserve comfort. Jackets can get hot under the stage lights. Long sleeves can restrict movement.

Whatever the reason, the look of the classical musician is changing.

The renowned pianist Yuja Wang raised eyebrows when she played Rachmaninoff at the Hollywood Bowl in a short orange minidress. And though women tend to stick with the traditional long gown, that gown could be any number of wild colors. Spaghetti straps are standard issue, as seen on Page F1 on violinist Rachel Lee Priday, who performs with the BPO in May, and pianist Yoonie Han, who performs in April. Accessories, subtle or not, can also make a statement. A few weeks ago, the young pianist Natasha Paremski joined the BPO sporting not only a red gown but, in a master touch, red shoes.

Men, too, are striking creative notes. Lang Lang, opening the next Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra season, is known for his offbeat look and spiky hair. Raphael Severe, a clarinetist giving a concert March 24 at UB’s Baird Recital Hall, goes into the rock realm for the look of his CD.

Chamber groups are also stretching their wings. The Elias Quartet, coming for a Buffalo Chamber Music Society recital on Tuesday, has a look very different from the august Juilliard Quartet, performing in April.

“It’s changing,” said JoAnn Falletta, the BPO’s music director. “Musicians are moving away from traditional, formal, elegant garb into all kinds of experimental things. Especially men,” she added. “Men are experimenting with very casual outfits. I think women are into glamour. You also have young women wearing short skirts. I don’t know where it’s going to end up. It certainly startles people.”

Falletta thinks the trend is fun. “I think the orchestra is dazzled by it, and the audience is, too,” she said.

Philip Rehard, the concert manager for UB’s Slee Hall, gives the revealing dresses a thumbs up from a guy’s perspective. From a professional perspective, he adds a caveat.

“I think that sexy outfits are an amazing idea, provided that they are still tasteful and aren’t used as a means to detract from any deficiencies in the performer,” he said.

He cites a cellist who did not live up to her get-up. And a trio touted as the sexiest trio performing. “That was promoted above their musicianship. They were nice to look at, but ...

“On the other hand, I remember what (violinist) Chee-Yun did on the Ramsi P. Tick Memorial Concert Series. She came out in a rather conservative, yet glamorous gown on the first half, and she played beautifully,” he said. “Then, in the second half, she kicked it up a notch, both in terms of her dress and her playing. Yet, her dress was still not over the top, and you were not distracted from her amazing performance. What a night that was,” he added. “I wish more people could pull that off.”

We can’t pretend that clothes don’t matter. They affect the musical experience, for the performer and the audience.

Even an accent can make a subtle statement. Soloing with the BPO, violinist Augustin Hadelich wore a jacket with a red lining that the audience glimpsed as he played. Wu Man, who played the pipa with the BPO last year, wore not only a gold dress but raspberry-colored tights.

Red is a hallowed color in the music world. Mozart famously owned a signature red coat, and red and black is a classic combination. But decades ago, such creativity was far more rare.

The proper, Viennese-born Josef Krips, the Buffalo Philharmonic’s music director in the 1950s, once reprimanded a BPO musician who showed up at a rehearsal without a jacket and tie.

“Vat is zat?” Krips reportedly inquired.

“A sports shirt,” came the brave answer.

Krips said: “Tomorrow you vill dress appropriately.”

Today, Krips would be comforted to realize that true elegance never goes out of style. And that the old is new again.

The traditional white tie and tails have become uncommon enough so that they are a statement. They radiate old-school confidence. Think Andre Watts, on schedule for the BPO’s upcoming season. Or Abdel Rahman El Bacha, playing Rachmaninoff. When El Bacha tossed those tails over the bench, one woman in the audience breathed: “He is a total babe.”

The most recent pianist to go old school was Alain Lefevre, who joined the BPO recently for Gershwin’s Concerto in F. Lefevre is very physical with the piano, in the sense of the old virtuosi. His choice of the formal finery magnified this strength.

It also suited the music, Falletta said.

“If you’re going to play George Gershwin, you should be in ’20s, ’30s elegant dress garb,” she reflected.

She marveled that for his Sunday afternoon concert, Lefevre found a perfect alternative. “He’s very stylish,” she said.

“He wore a beautiful suit with a white ascot. It was very elegant, very beautiful. He looked almost like a priest. I told him that. And he said, ‘I have a little priest in me.’”

She laughed. “Everyone finds his own way.”

She does, too. Though she usually conducts wearing black pants and black jacket, Falletta herself might be branching out.

“Robert (Alemany, her husband) bought me a jacket that’s a midnight purple, and I have worn that, with a little trepidation,” she confided. “I also have a brand new jacket, with green satin trim.

“I am experimenting a little more.”