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What are YOU lookin’ at?
1 Dec 2011
Inside the Classics

I frequently receive post-concert emails via my website, and while most of the time it’s people who want to discuss the finer points of the performance or to ask about my approach to a piece of music, I occasionally get one of those messages that has me scratching my head. Below, a correspondence following our Shostakovich concert:

Subject: Conductor’s Mane Distracts

Last evening (11/12/11) I attended a concert of the Minnesota Orchestra where Ms. Hicks conducted Shostakovich’s 5th symphony (“Inside The Classics” series). It was a great concert, a magnificent concert. Ms. Hicks is a brilliant conductor; however, her long hair swaying wildly is a distraction. A MAJOR distraction. She passionately and moves her head alot during the more dramatic moments of the symphony and thus her hair gets tossed back and forth like a frantic metronome. I can’t tell you how many times my concentration was annoyingly interrupted in the concert due to her hair. Advice: get a chic updo and give the audience the musical movement instead of the hair movement. If you don’t believe me, have someone sit in the audience and videotape Ms. Hicks as she conducts and tell me how one’s eyes gravitate to her hair. It reminds me of when one is in a bar or restaurant where multiple TVs are playing. You know the scene: as much as we want to give all our attention to the friend(s) we are with, our eyes are involuntarily averted to the TV images, over and over again. Ms. Hicks distracts the audience to involuntarily watch her hair flipping, swaying and dancing about instead of the real reason we are in Orchestra Hall – to hear the magnificent musical art performed by the world-class Minnesota Orchestra.

I don’t know how I feel about being compared to a TV in a bar, but I do know that I receive far more comments about my appearance than a male conductor would. There, I’ve said it. As much as we like to tout our enlightenment when it comes to gender equality, I know I’m being judged on slightly different criteria than my male colleagues.

Every now and then there’s some kind of uproar over concert attire, as we saw with the Yuja Wang-orange dress debacle this past summer. I’ve taken my fair share of critiques for what I wear onstage (for the record, and for those of you who have not been to one of our concerts, it’s usually flowy slacks and a sleeveless top); I think part of it has to do with the fact that women don’t have a uniform like men do, so we have automatic leeway, which makes some people uncomfortable.

I received some harsh criticism from a very unhappy gentleman in Raleigh, NC last year over the fact that I wasn’t wearing a jacket and baring my arms; I pointed out to him that the soloist I was performing with was in a strapless sating gown, but that didn’t seem to dissuade him from ranting about the “inappropriateness” of my attire! There’s no accounting for taste, I suppose. I discovered several years ago, after tearing a rotator cuff, that it’s much easier, physically, to conduct without the impediment of a jacket, or any sleeves at all. Why not do what’s most comfortable?

But this really was the first time I was criticized for something that is a part of my physical being rather than something I put on. I don’t know about all you ladies out there with lengthy tresses, but putting long hair in an “updo” (or up at all) for longer than an hour or so gives me headaches. It’s just easiest to wear it long. Again, a comfort thing. I couldn’t imagine anyone complaining about James Levine’s fuzzy halo impeding one’s view of the woodwinds, or Christoph Eschenbach’s bald pate reflecting the glare of stage lights, both of which I’ve witnessed.

While I appreciate that the audience is watching me some of the time, I would hope that they’re looking at the orchestra as well (and I will note that there are plenty of women in the Minnesota Orchestra who wear their hair down during concerts. And move their heads around, to boot. Just sayin’…). And, finally, I always feel like it’s a double standard; if I dress too conservatively, as I did very early on in my career (short hair, boxy suits), I run the risk of being called “dowdy” (yes, this did happen, believe it or not) – and when I embrace my femininity (long hair, fashionable attire), I’m deemed “distracting”…or worse. Long story short; a girl can’t win, so you might as well be comfortable.

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