The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Sep 30, 2007

Classic Beauties

Conventional wisdom is that classical music is the demesne of geriatric audiences, suited and gowned and rich women and men, attending staid opera houses and applauding symphonies, listening to complex and unhummable works, and thereby putting off the young.

Sales of the genre are dwindling all around, and even if young Chinese and Koreans and Japanese comprise entire graduating classes at Juilliard, there does not appear to be much of a pickup in revenues from classical music either in the West or in the Orient. The occasional superstars such as the Three Tenors and their imitators notwithstanding, if an artiste sells 10,000 records, he or she is considered a blockbuster. So what does the industry do to expand its appeal to the youth of today?

Enter a steady stream of photogenic and nubile performers, posing sexily and photographed provocatively. The finest violinists and sopranos pout and simper, made up to kill, undressed to ravish. They are entirely comfortable with their physicality even in the face of the utterly cerebral nature of their art. Some, like Linda Lampenius, have posed in Playboy. The likes of Nicola Benedetti strike sultry attitudes in promotional photographs. Some, like Bond, the Spice Girls of classical music cross over to popular (classical-lite) and aided by CD covers sizzling with sex, achieve platinum blockbusters. Of course, it is not just women who are commodified in this fashion. The Croatian pianist Maksim has posed his hunky self in a bid to attract a wider audience.

But are sales of true classical music improving? Sex is said to sell, but does it risk alienating the core audience?

I am afraid that even talented musicians can suffer a backlash. Sales may pick up in relative terms, but lovers of the arts might stop taking them seriously. Lara St. John's Bach album did see a spike in numbers, chiefly owing to the pictures of her naked breasts barely obscured by a violin. Yet serious aficionados unable to get past the cover, would have devalued her efforts, and her career might not have progressed quite as much as she deserved. The venerable Gramophone, for example, while praising her remarkable technique, scoffed that St. John (who appears vamping in heavy makeup and see-through dress in a booklet fold-out on a poster-size pin up) has no need to engage in such ignoble marketing ploys.

In a world of increasing objectification and of commodity sex, the wow-factor needs to be quite severe to be of consequence. The initial shock of a classical artiste's decolletage quite quickly wears off. We may have eye-candy galore, but the domain remains intellectual, high-brow, with heavy barriers to entry. And so interest remains flat. As astutely pointed out in the Boston Globe, we live in a visual culture, but it is good to remind ourselves occasionally that music is still primarily addressed to the ear.


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