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Young Classical Women Spice Up Their Images

A new generation of players has challenged the traditional depiction of female musicians, rocking the classical world.

Contributing Editor RW Deutsch reports:

[ Thurs., January 6, 2001 3:00 AM EST ]

"Yet before I'd even taken the wrapper off, I was disturbed by the cover. On it is [Lara] St. John herself — nude from the navel up ... What does that tell us about Bach, or her, or both?" — D.T. Baker of the Edmonton Journal, on violinist Lara St. John's album Bare Bach — Works for Violin Solo.

The best musicians bare their souls in their music. In recent years, various young, female classical artists have bared more than that, setting off a firestorm of controversy in the music world.

There's violinist Linda Brava who posed nude for Playboy. And violinist Vanessa Mae, who fiddled away in a wet T-shirt for a publicity photo. They and others — including violinist Leila Josefowicz, cellist Nina Kotova, the Eroica Trio, the Mediaeval Baebes and the string quartet Bond, dubbed "the Spice Girls of classical music" — comprise a new generation of performers who are challenging the traditional images of women in the classical world.
Violinist Lara St. John raised the ire — and eyebrows — of critics with the cover of her CD, Bare Bach — Works for Violin Solo.

"I've been lucky with reviews, but some critics can't seem to get past the cover," said St. John, whose bare chest was covered by a violin for the occasion. "I do my best and put everything into my concerts and CDs, but there are these old fogies [who reject the cover]. It wouldn't matter if I was the Second Coming because of the image and the way I'm projecting it. Frankly, I don't care. But it does make me think they're shooting themselves in the foot. And they say classical music is dying — who would have an interest in it if it weren't for this generation?"

Canadian-born St. John began playing at the age of two, performed solo with the Windsor Symphony at four and is a graduate of the Curtis Institute. She has performed as soloist with the Cleveland and Philadelphia orchestras, the Seattle, Hong Kong and Vancouver symphonies, and has won the Minnesota Orchestra Competition and the Grand Prize of the Canadian Music Competition.

"The whole idea of women doing anything is pretty recent," St. John noted. "If you look back to the 1940s and '50s, if you look at the entirety of classical music, women were something like 5 percent of solo performers, which today is more like 40 [percent]. Hey, great! About time!"

Other women have been supportive of St. John's image-busting moves. While posing for a slightly suggestive CD cover is "not something I'm interested in doing," Eroica Trio cellist Sara Sant'Ambrogio said, "I find there's nothing wrong with that whatsoever. I thought it was tasteful. ... People say it's because of what we look like that we get guff, but it's not — it's because we're women. It has nothing to do with being attractive or not attractive. But somehow there's an inherent sexism in classical music that has always been there. And finally, we're breaking that down."

Old Guard Habits Die Hard

The Eroica Trio — Erika Nickrenz (piano), Adela Peρa (violin) and Sant'Ambrogio (cello) — have known each other since they were children. They studied at Julliard, won the Naumburg Award (which led to their Lincoln Center debut), and have appeared with the Chicago, St. Louis and San Francisco symphonies. Sant'Ambrogio on her own has won the International Tchaikovsky Cello Competition, and contributed to the 1991 Grammy-winner Leonard Bernstein's Arias and Barcaroles.

Yet despite the years they've spent paying dues, Sant'Ambrogio recalled playing a "really old prestigious chamber music series" where the presenter suggested they change their publicity photo because it was too attractive. He said it led him to believe the trio couldn't play well, and added they'd only been hired because of a glowing referral from Peter Oundjian of the Tokyo Quartet.

"After the concert, we got a standing ovation and he comes back to me at the reception and starts to say it to me again," Sant'Ambrogio recalled. "And I was like 'You know what? I don't need you. If you want to act like such an incredible anachronistic dinosaur misogynist, then I don't want to play on your series.' And this older woman on the board — the only woman on the board — turned to me, said 'bravo' and started clapping."

Other artists are equally defiant about the way they and their music are perceived. "We have to be true to ourselves and can't be waiting around for anyone's go-ahead," said violinist Leila Josefowicz. "In the end the waves will be made by the people that really do what they do better, just better, than anyone else. Sure, there are a lot of violinists out there who are also blonde, who are 'pretty,' but the level of the playing is something that will speak for itself."

Like St. John, Josefowicz was considered a child prodigy and later studied at the Curtis Institute (where they became friends). She came to national attention with her Carnegie Hall debut performing the Tchaikovsky concerto with Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in 1994. She later recorded the work with them.

Since then, Josefowicz has been touring the world nonstop, performing with major ensembles and orchestras. Still she believes she must walk a fine line with when it comes to her physical presence.

"You have to be very careful how you present yourself," Josefowicz said. "Obviously nothing on [the cover of her recent album] Americana is 'showing.' People make a lot of assumptions based on just physical appearance alone, so the look I always want to have is very confident. Let's face it, everyone out there who has success has their own sexuality to them. Whether it's kind of more conventional looking or less, part of the reason they are successful is because they have some kind of draw. It all comes down to the level of the art and good taste."

Too Much Exposure?

But what qualifies as "good taste" depends on the individual. Where, on the taste scale, does one place Vanessa-Mae's wet T-shirt photo and Linda Brava's foray in Playboy?

And then there are the 12 women of pop-classical group The Mediaeval Baebes, who dress like something out of a Renaissance fair and play such songs as "Salve Virgo Virginum" (RealAudio excerpt). Their 1997 Virgin Records debut was backed by one of the largest-ever marketing budgets for a classical act (leader Katharine Blake is also a member of alt-rock band Miranda Sex Garden). After turning down several offers to pose in men's magazines, the group has just released a book of erotic photographs featuring themselves, entitled "Songs of the Flesh." While some critics suggested their change out of clothes was prompted by lagging record sales, the Baebes are donating royalties from the book to the UK-based National Association of Women's Organizations.

Their contemporaries are divided on the exposure issue. "The Vanessa-Mae and Linda Brava thing I don't think has anything to do with us," said St. John, referring to herself, Josefowicz and others. "This is not what I do. Vanessa is crossover. She's not classical; she's not pure. And what can I say about Linda Brava? I think it's great she posed in Playboy, but as for the rest of what she does — it has basically nothing to do with people like me. For God's sake, I've had years of training and have been doing this since I was two years old."

But the Finnish-born Brava (born Linda Lampenius) — her appearances in Playboy and on TV's "Baywatch" notwithstanding — also began playing classical music as a child, at age five. She studied at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki and played three years in the Finnish National Opera Orchestra. She then crossed over into pop, switching to an electric violin, but she showed her classical chops by recording such works as Jean Sibelius' Humoreske I, Op. 87, No. 1 (RealAudio excerpt).

"Each step you take has implications," said Josefowicz. "And each step that you take in the 'sexual direction' counts points against you in certain traditional circles. To be beautiful is good enough for me. I don't need to be naked in front of anybody in order for them to respect my art. It's gone totally crazy, haywire. It makes an artist look stupider than they are. It's kind of like musical prostitution."

Brava has her own definition of good taste. When asked about Vanessa-Mae performing classical music in combat boots and a dress slit up to her hips, Brava told London's Daily Telegraph: "To me, this is like the rape of classical music. What you must understand is that whenever I will be playing classical music, I will be wearing a long, black conventional dress." But Brava said that when she picks up her electric violin and plays pop, she opts for more revealing attire. "Of course," she added. "I must compete with MTV."

Manufacturing Classical Crossovers

Mae was already a recognized classical violinist when, at 14, she decided to become a pop star. She and her mother sought out British promoter Mel Bush (who has represented Queen, David Bowie and Elton John), who brought her to see composer/conductor Mike Batt. Batt eventually produced and wrote music for her first crossover album.

"She was very technically able, but she just wanted to be a star," Batt said. "I suggested an electric violin, which would give her a more contemporary appeal. I found it for her, gave it to her and wrote the music for her first album."

That album subsequently sold 4 million copies. When her sixth CD was released in March, it promptly sold 6 million copies worldwide. Still, her success and image have come at a cost.

"When you see a girl like Vanessa on stage in short trousers or in the water [in the wet T-shirt], people think she's not taking herself seriously so why should we?" Batt said. "That is, unfortunately, the way the classical world looks at an artist like that."

In the liner notes to her most recent release, The Classical Collection, Mae wrote, "Many things about me have changed since I was 13 years old, but something that will always remain is my determination to play music that satisfies me, and never to be restricted by categories imposed arbitrarily from outside."

The 22-year-old Mae has recently garnered more headlines for firing Bush, just a year after firing her own mother as her manager. The reason, she told London's Daily Mirror, was that "I don't want to be a part of a quintet."

The "quintet" she spoke of is the latest controversial crossover female act, the string quartet known as Bond (also managed by Bush). "Bond was really my idea," Batt said. "I suggested to Mel Bush a string quartet in the style of Vanessa."

On his Web site, Batt wrote that he told Bush "to find four beautiful, talented musicians (not necessarily girls — that would be sexist — but as long as they looked good in a bikini, wore perfume and had long hair it wouldn't matter what sex they were.) They also had to be terrific musicians, of course."

And thus Bond were formed through auditions at music schools in the UK and Australia. In October, the group's debut album, Born, was kicked off the UK classical music charts (where it debuted at #2) and shifted to the pop charts.

"We are all classical musicians who have trained for 20 years," Bond violinist Haylie Ecker, 24, told the Sydney Morning Herald. "We have degrees and won prizes, we play in the classical tradition and we are a string quartet. And yet they won't allow our music in the classical charts. ... It sucks."

Again, the same complaint. But with Bond frolicking on a beach in their music video and posing nude for the Page 3 section of London's The Sun, the group seems to be courting controversy as much as acceptance.

"I'm not saying that we are going to change the world," Bond violist Tania Davis told the Herald. "If kids see musicians who aren't wearing black suits, it might encourage them to take up an instrument, or go up that extra staircase to the classical section."

Model Behavior

As yet another example of the kind of scrutiny these women face, Norman Lebrecht, author of The Companion to 20th Century Music, wrote the following at the end of an interview with cellist Nina Kotova for La Scena Musicale. The Russian-born Kotova at one point had to drop out of college for lack of funds and worked for a number of years as a successful fashion model.

"There is no harm in owning an exotic past, provided it is kept in check," wrote Lebrecht. "But if Kotova is ever to make it to the level she desires, she will need to prove herself twice as good as the next cellist to live down the ex-model label – and that is where no marketing campaign or bare-shouldered frock can help her."

The struggle continues and if any or all of these women succeed in making a permanent name for themselves in the classical world, one only hopes that they’re all correct in that it will be their sound not their looks that gets them there.

"You have to choose who you are trying to draw in," Josefowicz said. "I would much sooner do things my way and kind of be proud of everything that I do and sell a couple less million albums. Because in the end, fame and fortune – you know it’s actually overrated. We wake up and we go to sleep and do things that everyone else does – whether you have five million or ten dollars. It’s just doing something that you’re proud of and that you’re happy with."