London Chamber Orchestra chief executive writes about the orchestra’s groundbreaking decision to remove the dress code from performance
Recently we at London Chamber Orchestra (LCO) has decided to drop the dress code. The decision was made not only because the dress code is such a huge headache in the classical music industry, but also to bridge the gap between orchestra and audience and make classical music more accessible.
It is important to note that a dress code does not have the same purpose as a uniform or a suit. When a uniform helps the audience understand someone’s role, and a costume helps an audience understand a character’s personality and background, a dress code very specifically influences perceptions of social norms and cultures. By insisting that our musicians wear a specific western influenced and gendered dress code, we, as an orchestra, have created a boundary between “us”; the musicians on stage, who are all of a certain social class, wealth, gender and binary culture, and “them”; the audience, which ideally comes from all social classes, all financial backgrounds and understands all gender identities and cultures.
The traditional concert dress for “us” (the musicians) is the tail coat, from which all concert dress codes are derived. It has its origin in the 18th century when musicians performed in people’s homes for their guests. When the concerts moved to the concert hall, the dress code did not change as the musicians were exclusively male (an imbalance that persisted until the 1970s, when the London Symphony Orchestra welcomed its first wife. ). During this period, it was also common for “them” (the audience) to wear formal wear to the theater or other expensive events.
For the London Chamber Orchestra, “Us” is something very different. Founded in 1921 by Anthony Bernard, we were the first professional chamber orchestra in the UK. LCO’s concerts were eclectic, diverse and modern, harnessing the thirst for more varied programming in the culturally vibrant 1920s. The first performances took place at the home of Lady Aster (the UK’s first female MP) but the musicians did not perform as servants: celebrated in other orchestras, London’s top musicians simply came to play with a band. like-minded musicians.
Bernard selected large-scale pieces of music that explored lesser-known works by some of the greatest composers. LCO’s list of world and UK premieres spans hundreds of years, including composers such as Stravinsky, Vaughan Williams, Delius, Prokofiev and even Mozart.
Christopher Warren-Green continued in this modern vein when he became Music Director of LCO in 1988, causing shockwaves throughout the industry when the orchestra gave a rock-style concert under the lights of the Hammersmith Apollo. Christopher and Rosemary Warren-Green were pictured on the Apollo Stage wearing clothing that was almost rebellious to what the classical music world was used to.
The LCO also released a series of albums in the 1980s with album covers that broke the rules. The designs were so iconic that they ended up on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
So now, 100 years after the inaugural LCO concert, we still maintain the same principles of high-profile music performance: classics, lesser-known but big works, and new commissions. We always have the best musicians from London coming to play because the experience is exciting, rewarding and inclusive. If we are to reflect today’s society as we did in 1921 and again in the 1980s, it is difficult to conclude that the best dress code for us is traditional Western, male and domestic clothing.
I started my career in music as a horn player and in hindsight I would say I was not really a natural ‘us’ member as I felt there was certain pressure to sound like and act like. a certain way. As I progressed in the profession, I realized that there were many more musicians who felt the same. You wouldn’t know it, but one of the beautiful things about musicians in UK is that we represent all corners of our society. We represent a range of gender identities, sexualities, cultures, demographics and ages. We represent the public at events in the arts and popular entertainment sectors. We represent social media and Netflix users! We are a group of human beings who have worked incredibly hard from a young age to do what we do, but we still have lives outside of work.
So if “we” (the musicians) can enjoy classical music enough to devote our lives to it, what is it that prevents “them” (the audience) from becoming fans and coming to concerts? It’s no secret that the industry has a reputation for being somewhat snobby and exclusive. Classical music can also seem inaccessible to people who have had limited or no access to learning an instrument.
This is not an exclusive UK problem. Classical music orchestras and organizations around the world are experiencing similar reductions in audience numbers. Some of these organizations explained to the audience why this might be the case and received an overwhelming response that many people do not feel welcome in the concert hall. They don’t know what they should look like or act. When can they clap and when can they speak? Will they be “educated” enough to be able to enjoy the concert and feel engaged? Clearly ‘they’ don’t feel like ‘us’.
Surely it’s time to start reflecting the audiences we want and need for classical music to not only survive, but thrive in the modern environment and the digital age. Wouldn’t it be a shame if this incredibly exciting and passionate field of the arts continued on the path of demise we find ourselves on because we refuse to be in tune with society at large and follow our lead. potential audience?
So at LCO there is no “them” and “us” – the audience and the orchestra are together. We are all “us” and we are what we wear.
You can find out more about the London Chamber Orchestra at their website.