This may be flirting with madness, but let's take a speculative tour through the mind of Lang Lang.
The 29-year-old Chinese pianist is again opening new vistas of classical music stardom with his appearance last month at the ultra-hip, predominantly pop iTunes Festival in London - just the latest nonclassical venue he's explored.
It was inevitable. His hair and clothes have made him look like a rock star for years, and now he performs alongside them, in this case with classical repertoire by a man who's often called the original rock star, Franz Liszt. If you were Lang Lang and asked to be in such a visible forum - you can see it on iTunes if you have a properly up-to-date Mac - would you say yes? And would you dress in the appropriate fantastical fashion for the occasion? If Lang Lang had answered "no" to either question, he wouldn't be Lang Lang, he'd be the prodigiously talented and bland classical pianist Yundi (formerly Yundi Li), who doesn't play such gigs because he isn't interesting enough to pull them off.
The face of classical music has been changing for awhile, and Lang Lang has had a significant hand in that ever since he left the Curtis Institute of Music nearly a decade ago. But it's all getting so extreme, some might say classical music is turning into its own slutwalk, with artists seizing upon every possible media outlet, and looking as provocative as possible.
Lang Lang's 24-year-old Curtis classmate, Yuja Wang, made jaws drop with a microdress she wore onstage at the Hollywood Bowl last week with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (whose music director, Gustavo Dudamel, was just announced as a guest star on a forthcoming segment of Sesame Street). Longtime Wang watchers couldn't have been surprised - her rehearsal garb with the Philadelphia Orchestra once led an onlooker to remark, "Boy, that streetwalker can really play." Similarly, the often-shirtless baritone Nathan Gunn inspires the thought, "That personal trainer can really sing."
There's no harm in any of this, though I'm skeptical about the classical conversion potential. Are the fans Wang makes with her physical allure going to stick with her for more than a CD or two? There's an axiom in the theater that the minute people get naked onstage, the audience stops listening. That's also a danger when a hot visual element is introduced to classical music - one reason why, over time, the tradition of distraction-free formal wear became standard in orchestras. At the iTunes Festival, Lang Lang played in front of five video screens. His concentration was remarkable. But did anybody hear anything?
This isn't the first time such questions have arisen. Overall, the classical world is a better place since violinist Anne Sophie Mutter began, in the mid-1980s, wearing strapless concert gowns that give her more freedom of movement, not to mention the sensual pleasure of feeling her violin close to her bare skin. Soprano Karita Mattila spends her spare time making her own form-fitting concert gowns; one could have worse hobbies. Both artists have exemplary careers with adventuresome contemporary repertoire. Also, visual desensitization set in quickly: After a few concerts, I stopped noticing what they wore and was all ears.
What's important is that artists be true to who they are. Lang Lang and Wang might simply be acting their ages. Lang Lang has always had questionable taste in clothes: Remember that dreadful bright-red suit he used to wear at the Mann Center when he was still a Curtis student and could barely afford such things? How many women compensate for insecurity about their looks with makeup and ever-higher hems? Though it seems unlikely, could the lovely Wang simply be doing so while playing Rachmaninoff?
But there's no competing with charismatic rock stars on their own terms. Classical musicians gain their charisma by knowing what they're doing. Marc-Andre Hamelin has a greater cool factor than Lang Lang if only because he manages unbelievable pianistic feats with minimal physicality.
The problem is when the clothes wear the musicians. One of the great classical pianists of the 20th century, Friederich Gulda, spent a lot of time playing jazz (not well, by most reports), composing uselessly eccentric pieces, and, in one period, performing nude (and not because he looked like Nathan Gunn). What did those side trips contribute? Nothing.
British violinist Nigel Kennedy has had lots of irrelevant years. He plays Bach with considerable distinction and positively owns the Elgar Violin Concerto. Yet he champions things like The Doors Concerto: Riders on the Storm. However thoughtfully written by Jaz Coleman, it was a mere novelty for pop and classical audiences.
And at age 54, Kennedy's punk sense of self-presentation is getting embarrassing. It's out of date - and usually the actions of somebody one-third his age. Compare him with Andre Previn, who never advertises his multipurpose life as a conductor, jazz pianist, and composer. He simply does it and is excellent on all fronts.
Obviously, Lang Lang and Wang are doing many things right. No doubt because of ticket demand, Lang Lang's Chicago recital this season isn't at the usual venues, but at the Chicago Civic Opera House, which has more seats. At the iTunes Festival, his Liszt had its vulgar moments, but that's what Liszt asks for, as well as for poetry and tenderness, to which Lang Lang brought a crystalline touch. By all accounts, Yuja Wang keeps growing as a musician and perhaps never played better (or deeper) in this summer's round of Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 performances, including the one in the orange dress.
But life is short, and music careers are shorter. Talent is fragile - it should never be treated casually.