Classical Girl Power?

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Alison BalsomAlison BalsomIn the Diamond Jubilee concert at the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod, Lesley Garrett introduced the line-up of herself, violinist Nicola Benedetti, trumpeter Alison Balsom and conductor Sian Edwards as ‘classical girl power’. I found myself simultaneously cheered at this list of soloists and wistful that it should still be a matter of remark. ‘Girl Power’ is after all one of those odd phrases that encapsulates optimism and defeatism at the same time.

However, the concert was a very interesting case-study in different solutions to the presentational questions female musicians need to address in their roles as public figures. As I have written about before, there are competing imperatives between the ideologies of classical music that render the musician invisible to ‘let the music speak for itself’ and the general cultural expectation that the female body will be on display, subject to public gaze.

Lesley Garrett took the gaze head-on, ostentatiously drawing attention to her mode of dress, and indeed changing her frock twice during the course of the concert. To an extent, this conforms with pre-existing roles available for classical singers anyway – they have always had a dramatic as well as musical persona.

But she was also actively working across the borders of snobbery and reverse snobbery that exist in classical music’s class system. Her persona in speaking to the audience is as a down-to-earth northerner, just like me and thee. She puts on her glasses to check her notes for the announcements, and cracks gentle jokes at her own expense.

Her style of singing is also clearly designed to make everything clear to the audience; she will compromise the legato line and pure soprano tone to make characterisation work, and nods and winks her way through the harmonic changes of an orchestral accompaniment. The classical musician in me finds this making more sense in operetta than in Bach, but it must be said she really lives the ritornelli. Cross-over here is a complex straddling of cultural values and musical conventions.

Benedetti and Balsom took a different tack. They were both presented as glamorous performers (and they both have the looks to do this well), but the glamour was of the classic, demure beauty. Their dresses were cut in simple, elegant lines, under-ornamented, but nonetheless putting their figures and faces clearly on display. They greeted the audience sweetly, almost shyly, looking somewhat surprised and grateful to receive the warmth of welcome they were offered. They had something of the young Princess Diana around the eyes.

This demureness was also the vehicle by which they brought attention back into the music. They both looked rapt in the orchestral sound both when they were actually playing and when the orchestra played without them. Music-making became, in their hands, an intimate world in which they wore their musical hearts on their décolleté (there’s a metaphor that needed adaptation to the occasion).

And their playing was exquisite. They each invited us into a world of nuance and colour and shape and subtlety that really is classical music at its best. The Haydn Trumpet Concerto in particular was as beautiful as you’ve always desired it to be but never before actually witnessed.

Sian Edwards had a completely different approach again. She took advantage of the notion that the conductor is conceptually invisible to wear a somewhat more informal and slightly feminised version of traditionally masculine concert dress: dark trousers and shirt, velvet waist-coat and a halo of wavy hair that betokened character whilst never interfering with the job in hand (think somewhere between Beethoven and Simon Rattle, but a bit less wild).

This was work-wear: sensible attire that draws attention away from the performer onto the music by being neither eye-catchingly remarkable, or prejudice-catchingly unconventional. In up-holding the right for women to make music wearing comfortable shoes, she looked entirely comfortable, able to forget herself and simply focus on bringing the music out of the orchestra.

Because of course, for guys, you don’t have to have this conversation. It’s not just that they have a clear concert uniform (or at least a range of them) that signals that we should listen to what they do rather than look at who they are. The uniforms work because men just aren’t subject to the kind of gaze as a matter of cultural habit that affects women all the time.

Nobody says of Pierre Boulez, ‘Well he’s a wonderful musician of course, but his comb-over is quite absurd,’ or of Pavarotti in his later years, ‘It’s a great voice, but hasn’t he put on weight?’ People did remark of Lesley Garrett how well she was looking considering her age – and that was clearly a euphemism for still appearing young enough to be attractive. If the gaze is inevitable, women always have to find ways to parry, diffuse or deflect it.

So what I learned from this concert is (a) there are multiple successful strategies available to finesse this tension, and (b) key to all of them, as ever, is simply being astonishingly good. You can’t escape the gender stereotypes that permeate our world, but you can force people to reconfigure them somewhat in the face of transcendent musicianship.

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