Summer White Jacket Season
27 Jun 2011
Inside the Classics

It feels odd to be starting up the orchestra’s summer season only a week after we wrapped up what is officially our “winter season” (despite beginning in fall and ending in early summer,) but that’s the way the calendar fell this year, and we were back at Orchestra Hall this morning, rehearsing with Courtney for our annual parade of free outdoor concerts loosely bunched around Independence Day.

These concerts tend to take place mostly in the same few metro-area towns each season – this year’s lineup includes shows in Plymouth and Excelsior, Minnesota and Hudson, Wisconsin, plus a loooong runout down to the college town of Winona in southern MN.

The Hudson stop has always been my favorite, partly because we play at the town bandshell on the banks of the St. Croix River, which keeps the bugs away, but mostly because it seems like the entire town turns out for the concert every summer! Many arrive insanely early to set up their lawn chairs or picnic blankets in their preferred spots, and the whole vibe just reminds me of my childhood in similarly sized towns in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.

Photo courtesy of the Hudson Star-Observer.

In recent years, there’s also been some excellent dancing in the open space in front of the stage by some of the younger children of Hudson – it started spontaneously a number of years ago, and now seems to have become a full-fledged tradition. It’s beyond adorable.

The only thing I can’t stand about our summer season is, frankly, the dress code. Like many American orchestras, we spend the entire summer, indoors and out, wearing black bow ties and hideous white dinner jackets that no one (with the possible exception of Sean Connery) has ever looked good in.

This is not how I look in my white coat.

When you’re new in the orchestra business, and looking to buy your first white jacket, you’re faced with a terrible choice of styles, cuts, and materials. You could go with light, breathable linen or cotton and be relatively comfortable while you play, but the tradeoffs are that a) there’s almost no way the fabric will actually be a true white, so to the audience, it will look like you haven’t cleaned your concert clothes since the Reagan administration, and b) after a single wearing, you will never again have an unwrinkled coat. If you want the coat to actually look white, and also to look as if you don’t store it in a tennis ball can, well… there’s the polyester rack right over there. Enjoy your summer of sweating inside a synthetic coat of armor.

Honestly, I don’t know why orchestras still cling to musty old dress codes the way we do. Conventional wisdom says that orchestra administrators are terrified that the audience will abandon us if we change anything about the traditional concert experience, but I don’t buy it. In fact, I’ve never heard an orchestra manager say anything of the kind. Furthermore, I can’t remember the last time a conductor wore a full white-tie tux while leading one of our subscription concerts (or a soloist, for that matter,) and I haven’t heard of anyone in the audience complaining about it. The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra abandoned tuxes years ago, and their audiences seem strangely untraumatized. And of course, women in symphony orchestras are more or less exempted entirely from formal clothing requirements, so long as they look professional.

No, I suspect that the real culprit is a combination of inertia and pressure from within orchestras to hold onto every tradition we can, even if it’s a tradition of uncomfortable and snooty clothing. There are plenty of musicians who think the formality of our dress code is a vital and important part of being a symphony orchestra, and the rest of us generally don’t feel strongly enough to bother picking a big fight over it. So we live with the tuxes and tails and suits and ties and all the rest.

But honestly – can’t we all get behind a movement to ban the white dinner jacket forever? Think what a lovely summery bonfire all that polyester would make…

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