Saturday, May 02, 2009

Cult of Personality: Other Thoughts

I'll never forget the day that Herbert von Karajan came to Juilliard. Around the time of an orchestra rehearsal, people were speaking in hushed tones about it. Perhaps he would come to hear our orchestra. And then he arrived. There was a familiar aura in the room: the specialized scent that musicians emit, perhaps, when someone they believe is truly great has entered a room. Now, I didn't care much about Karajan, but I did know his name. I barely saw him when he came in with his entourage (he was very short) and his scarf, but I could feel the importance of his presence.

I noticed the same sense of general awe at Tanglewood when I would see Leonard Bernstein go to a rehearsal, dressed in the most casual of clothes, smoking a cigarette, and surrounded by an entourage. Perhaps it is the entourage that presents that aura of "otherness."

My flute teacher would often have guests come in to Juilliard (and those guests needed guest passes just like everyone else), and they would present themselves as people who didn't have a practical care in the world. People who never had to pay a phone bill (or worry where the money would come from to do it), people who looked really successful, and presented themselves as successful people. Now, in retrospect, I have a feeling that it was, for almost everybody except James Galway, mostly an act.

Though my musical origins were impressive (growing up around the Boston Symphony), I tended to respond to musicians as regular people. Sure, my parents dressed up for concerts, but it was more like putting on a uniform. My father, being the kind of person he is, dressed for comfort. On stage he wore tails like all the other BSO men, and in normal life he wore normal clothes--nothing fancy, and nothing particularly noteworthy, and nothing particularly stylish. My teacher dressed the same way as my father (except for the running pants--my father would never be caught dead in anything as stylish as running pants).

I followed the examples of my teacher and my father, but perhaps I should have followed the examples of all those well-dressed guests. I imagine (thinking in retrospect) that those people who looked so "put together" had probably spent many hours and lots of money to look the way they did to present themselves as Juilliard. From those experiences (and other observations) I learned that flutists (both men and women) are more often judged by the way they look--the way they present themselves, the way they dress, and their overall attractiveness--than the way they play.

The dressing down of conductors (Bernstein and Ozawa) in the 1970s was always confusing to me. In a way I believe they would carefully dress down because they could. It magnified their sense of importance. They were so important that they could be the worst dressed people in a room, and still be the most attractive.

It still baffles me how much attractiveness factors into musical success. You would think that the situation would be different for musicians, who are supposed to be judged by the way they sound rather than the way they look. But it isn't. Composers too. Look at the success of Ned Rorem. Had he not been an extremely good-looking young man (and he is still an extremely attractive octogenarian), he might not have gotten the support of the people he needed to have any kind of a career. Charm and intelligence is one thing, and charm, intelligence, and good looks is another thing entirely.

Notice the way that my flute teacher, Julius Baker, playing with the far more attractive (far taller, and far more famous) Jean-Pierre Rampal (who toned down his body-English for this occasion), was ignored by Dick Cavett, who addressed all his banter to Rampal?


Lisa Hirsch said...

This is complicated to unravel, indeed. I have wondered if Myra Hess could have a career today. She wasn't beautiful and she dressed very decorously. Of course, I saw Martha Argerich earlier this year, and her demeanor was surprising. She seemed tremendously shy, with a real deer-in-the-headlights affect, and looked both klutzy and frumpy, in an outfit that wasn't particularly flattering or well-cut or attractive. She then played the hell out of the Ravel G major.

Betcha Rampal's Frenchness also had something to do with Cavett's behavior toward Rampal and Baker.

Elaine Fine said...

Notice I barely mentioned women in this post at all! Now there's a whole 'nother can of worms.