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AH, THE CONCERT HALL: THE ORchestra, smartly attired in white tie and tails; the elegant conductor, raising his slender baton as he prepares to give the downbeat; the dramatically beautiful young violinist resplendent in...a wet T shirt?
It hasn't come to that--not yet, anyway. But to judge from a fresh crop of young female performers, the dowdy, male-dominated world of classical music is in for a long-needed injection of glamour and, yes, sex appeal. String players all, the women present images ranging from the frank sensuality of electric violinist Vanessa-Mae, 17, to the girl-next-door allure of Leila Josefowicz, 18, to the more mature charms of Canadian cellist Ofra Harnoy, 30, and sultry new-music violinist Maria Bachmann, 35. And then there's the all-female violoncello quartet known collectively as Cello. The group is making records, performing widely--and if physical allure helps, so be it.
Indeed, there is a dawning recognition among classical performers that in a world in which marketing is queen, it behooves even serious musicians to put all their assets front and center. "The more we can try to appeal to broader audiences the better," says the highly accomplished Bachmann, whose latest album, Kiss on Wood, offers music by Aaron Copland and Alfred Schnittke--as well as a come-hither album back cover featuring (by classical music's standards) some generous cleavage. "Let's face it, people go into record stores and a lot of times buy recordings on the basis of what they see on the cover," says Bachmann.
What they see can be eye catching. The Thai-Chinese-British violinist who goes by the name Vanessa-Mae (full name: Vanessa-Mae Vanakorn Nicholson) has a new album, The Violin Player, climbing up the worldwide pop charts on the strength of her disco-driven version of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. A photo on the single from the album features the slim, pretty teen fiddling away while standing in the Mediterranean in a soaking-wet see-through white shift. "If as a result of this, people see the violin as a fresh, trendy, up-to-date instrument, that's fine with me," says Vanessa-Mae, whose avowed goal is to do for the electric violin what Jimi Hendrix did for the electric guitar. "If the music is good and well played, then it will touch anybody, anywhere." And if the music fails to touch audiences, there's always the video, which can be seen on VH1 and features Vanessa-Mae in tight hot pants, strolling saucily on the beach and looking for all the world like a Saigon B-girl circa 1965.
Did somebody say exploitation? "Of course she is an attractive young lady," says Mel Bush, Vanessa-Mae's British manager. "The classical press has felt we were exploiting somebody young with a very light, sexy image, but she is not being exploited. She makes all the decisions herself."
Everyone agrees that no matter how attractive the musician, if the performance is lacking, the career will not take off. Says Harnoy, the cellist whose bodice-baring Victorian dresses sometimes distract attention from her accomplished playing: "If this is getting albums sold, great. But I don't think if somebody buys my album because they like the picture, they will buy the next album because they like the picture. If the music is not pleasing them, there are only so many pictures they want to have."
IN THE CASE OF MOST OF THESE artists, the performance level is quite high. It's difficult to say how good a violinist Vanessa-Mae is; the combination of her electric fiddle and the syntho-pop ambiance makes serious evaluation difficult. But there is no doubt about the talent of Leila Josefowicz, whose Carnegie Hall performances of the Sibelius Violin Concerto with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony two months ago were revelatory. An effortless technique and a rich tone that will only grow in size and warmth as she matures indicate that Josefowicz is one to watch.
Born in Toronto, the young violinist grew up in Los Angeles and trained at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music. On her first CD, just released, she's being marketed a bit more wholesomely than her peers. "There is a fine line between really being able to convey something fresh and new and likable, and going over the top," observes Lisa Altman, vice president of Philips Classics, Josefowicz's label. "I don't think we've done that with Leila. She's got that Ivory Soap-Seventeen magazine type of appeal. We didn't want to take a short-term approach because I expect she is going to have a long, prolific career."
It's worth remembering that the intersection of sex and art is the foundation on which much classical music was originally made. Over the past 175 years, a dashing, Byronic image was eagerly sought after by many of the important figures in composition and performance. Franz Liszt, devastatingly handsome, was the most famous lover in Europe as well the greatest pianist; women fought over the cigar butts he left on the piano after a concert. Leopold Stokowski, the great conductor who shook Mickey Mouse's hand in Fantasia, used to ensure that the lighting at his concerts highlighted his aquiline countenance and halo of long hair. In short, sex has always sold. What's new is that it is women who are now doing the selling.
Female musicians with a cannily erotic appeal could always be found--in the movies. Think of Ingrid Bergman, who played the femme fatale pianist who broke up Leslie Howard's marriage in the 1939 movie Intermezzo, or Amy Irving, who went mano a mano on the ivories with Richard Dreyfuss in 1980's The Competition. Prominent women instrumentalists have been much rarer in real life. During the first half of the 20th century, the severely beautiful Erica Morini, who died last month at 91, was one of the few who could lay claim to first-rank status. And Morini bristled at her categorization as a female violinist. "A violinist is a violinist, and I am to be judged as one--not a female musician," she said.
No one can miss the femininity of Cello--four women (Maria Kitsopoulos, Laura Bontrager, Maureen McDermott and Caryl Paisner) and four cellos, with an eclectic, smoothly performed repertoire that ranges from John Adams' Nixon in China to Miles Davis' So What. For its first album, released in 1990 by Pro Arte, the group (with slightly different membership) posed in black cocktail dresses, an image the quartet now wants to downplay. "We were not happy with that picture," says Paisner, who founded the group in 1988. "We thought it was a little too sexy, although it succeeded in getting attention. But people were inclined to take us less seriously." The group now generally performs in concert dress, although a recent appearance at New York City's Lincoln Center found them arrayed in stylish designer outfits.
"Classical people look at that and say, 'Oh, how racy,'" notes Paisner. "But compared to popular artists, it is nothing. My intent in forming this group was to make classical music more accessible." And if an attractive outfit does the trick, who, aside from the terminally stuffy, is going to complain?
--Reported by Daniel S. Levy/New York
Copyright 1995 Time Inc.


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