The Genteel
April 22, 2021


Violinist Hahn-Bin performing at MoMA (Source: Photography by Billy Farrell).
"Virtuosos becoming a dime a dozen" was the headline of a recent article by Anthony Tommasini, chief classical music critic of The New York Times.  He stated, "The overall level of technical proficiency in instrumental playing has increased steadily over time", likening the phenomenon to what happens in sports when those at the top of the game can do all the tricks - then what?  With classical music already facing its share of challenges, including declining appreciation of the art form amongst the general public, Tommasini's presage of how this trend will effect the field in the long-term seems dismal. But, I see hope.  

There is a handful of young musicians, each with virtuosic technique, artistic imagination, and musical richness, but it is their unique flair that has catapulted them above the rest in our noisy society. They are taking risks and blazing new trails, providing fresh perspectives, offering audiences someone they can relate to, and giving them something to talk about.  Music is the personal manifesto, personal style is the game changer.    

As Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini once said: "Art is all about craftsmanship. Others can interpret craftsmanship as style if they wish. Style is what unites memory or recollection, ideology, sentiment, nostalgia, presentiment, to the way we express all that. It's not what we say but how we say it that matters."
These are my top classical music provocateurs:
Yuja Wang (Source: Los Angeles Times).
The Firecracker: Yuja Wang
Her impressive command of the piano has been described as "astounding", "superhuman", and "jaw-dropping", but Yuja Wang really turned heads when she walked the stage of the Hollywood Bowl in a little orange dress, sparking a debate on "appropriate" female classical musician attire. Anne Midgette, music critic for The Washington Post, gracefully defended Yuja's wardrobe choice saying, "Let's have a reality check for a minute. Yes, the dress is short, tight and revealing. But in the real world - the world outside classical music's bubble - this is not unusual attire for a young rising starlet in the public eye."  I have had the pleasure of meeting Yuja, she is spunky, spontaneous, cool and totally confident about her extraordinary talent.  I say "you go girl", because as you will notice through the rest of this list, Yuja is the only woman in the pack.

Style Quote: Yuja and her management never provided a formal statement in response to all the brouhaha provoked by Mark Swed's review for The Los Angeles Times, but a few days after the concert she tweeted, "Live and let others live".

Signature Style: Bold colour, body hugging dresses and stilettos.
Hahn-Bin (Source: Los Angeles Times).
The Avant-Garde: Hahn-Bin
Self-described as "the Viagara to classical music and Aspirin to pop culture", the most common response violinist Hahn-Bin receives when he walks out on stage is a collective gasp. Juilliard-educated protégé of legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman, Hahn-Bin is more than just a virtuoso with masterful technique and artistic sensitivity, he is a performance artist who sings, dances, and speaks through the violin. Klaus Biesenbach, chief curator at the MoMA, described Hahn-Bin as a work of art, "The movement, his body, his clothes, his style, his dramaturgy and the music, of course, form a strong, complex, multi-layered audio-visual image." Building a bridge between Carnegie Hall and New York fashion parties, Hahn-Bin is in a theatrical genre of his own - classical music as never seen before.   

Style Quote: "Fashion and the visual expression of myself became a way to claim self-love. Every time I put on a lipstick, every time I drape myself, I become my own self rather than what everybody else would rather have me be. What I choose to wear or how I choose to express myself visually is equally important as the music itself. Fashion teaches spiritual lessons. It has taught me who I am and showed me what I didn't know about myself."

Signature Style: Thigh-high Rick Owens boots, Dior sleeveless kimono, Givenchy leopard-print tights, black eyeliner and lipstick, high-peaked mohawk swept up like a candle flame.
Charlie Siem (Source: Warner Classics).
The Pretty Boy: Charlie Siem
Hopelessly handsome, insanely talented, intelligently articulate, charming personality, AND a British accent to boot, Charlie Siem has all the fixings of a modern violin rockstar.  His musical prowess has garnered him worldwide acclaim and notable fans from classical music critics to scientist Stephen Hawking and Lady Gaga. He has recently graced the editorial pages of fashion and art publications Vogue Italia, V Magazine, ACNE Paper, and he was the global face of the Dunhill Spring 2011 campaign. Photographer Mario Testino says, "Charlie Siem brings a freshness into the world of classical music, with his contemporary look mixed with his mastering of the violin, the combination make for an exciting spectacle". His playing is thoughtful and his technique is strong, but he also has an elegant sense of style and blessed good looks. Charlie is a classic case proving that beauty isn't everything, but it sure helps.  

Style Quote: "On a practical level for me, fashion is a means of presenting myself onstage. It represents the visual side of my performance and can help - or hinder - appreciation for the music. That is why I personally prefer a smart but simple approach in order to show respect for the occasion, the audience, and the music without distracting unnecessarily. Having said that, it could also be appropriate to dress in character for a piece if it serves to enhance the performance, so nothing is totally off limits (very tight jackets make it hard to play the violin though!)."

Signature Style: Tailored suits and a left pinky-fingernail painted a different colour before every performance.

Cameron Carpenter
(Source: New York Times).
The Inventor: Cameron Carpenter
A dazzling performer and true showman, Cameron Carpenter has been called the Vladimir Horowitz of the organ and praised for his "extraordinarily glib fingers and Astaire-like footwork". Meshing virtuosity with innovation, Cameron not only practises improvisation at the organ creating his own arrangements, original compositions and in collaborations with jazz and pop artists, but he also makes alterations and adds embellishments to his wardrobe, tweaking pieces by Chanel, Valentino, and Vivienne Westwood. Cameron has also successfully campaigned funding for and designed his own personal organ, "The Excalibur", an unprecedented modular organ that he will take on tour, scalable to fit any venue and ready for any performance style. He has always seen the organ as a glamorous instrument and he's ready to convince the world.

Style Quote: "Each jewel that I'm putting on equates to another blow struck for artistic freedom with the organ."  

Signature Style: Skin tight Swarovski crystallized outfits, organ shoes, video screens. 
Lang Lang (Source: Adidas).
The Campaigner: Lang Lang
With his wide-eyed enthusiasm, gravity defying spiky hair, and flashy suits, Chinese pianist Lang Lang looks more like a Japanime character than a serious world-renowned virtuoso, but he has made it his mission to bring the excitement of classical music to a wider audience. Testimony to his success, he is considered the hottest artist (if not brand) on the classical music planet. Lang Lang has starred in the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games; recorded the official game soundtrack for Gran Turismo 5; and co-starred with Heather Graham in a 3D stop-motion animation, live action film "The Flying Machine" showcasing the music of Chopin, which was recently screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. As he credits Tom & Jerry the cartoon as his main source of inspiration, Lang Lang's choice of evangelical strategies and style is less about work and more like a boy at play.

Style Quote: "Classical music needs to do more to connect with young people. We don't need to change the way we play. We just have to show everyone we are normal human beings."  

Signature Style: Performance wardrobe provided by Versace and Adidas limited-edition gold and black piano themed Gazelle sneakers featuring the pianist's name in Chinese, a silhouette of the star in action, and golden piano pedals on the inside. The accompanying ad campaign was tagged with the slogan, "Celebrate Originality".
James Rhodes
(Source: Warner Bros Records).
The Alternative: James Rhodes
The first classical musician to be signed by the world's largest rock label, Warner Bros Records, does not wear a tuxedo, instead he's the exact opposite in every way.  Casual and unconventional, James Rhodes has been dubbed "the classical pianist with the rockstar attitude".  A potty mouth (who loves swearing as much as he loves cigarettes), James talks to his audience when performing live - he has described J.S. Bach as "kind of like a Baroque Keith Richards". The title of his newly released album, Bullets and Lullabies, sounds more indie than core classical piano repertoire.  He is active on almost every popular social media network, constantly in conversation about the composers and music that he is so passionate about. And if you visit his website you'll find images of a lighter, polaroids, iPhone, cup of coffee and pills. His refreshingly unacademic approach, imaginative outlook, and straight-up honesty has made James one of the most exciting new musicians on the classical circuit - and he can play.

Style Quote: "For me, classical music needs an almighty kick up the arse. It needs to be seen as fresh and invigorating and exciting, all the things it is. Who cares if you turn up in a ripped T-shirt, have tattoos and clap when you feel like it. Just turn up."

Signature Style: Trendy spectacles, graphic T-shirts, skinny jeans, sneakers, a tattoo on his right arm that reads "Sergei Rachmaninov" in Cyrillic, and iPad loaded with 12,000 scores in tow.


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