At the Símon Bolívar Orchestra performances in London in late June, the buzz wasn’t so much about what the group was playing, but what it was wearing. As Marshall Marcus noted in this article, when the orchestra abandoned the qualifier “Youth” from its name, it simultaneously divested its habitual dark suits and straight ties in favour of tailcoats. (The athletic jackets in the Venezuelan flag motif were normally held in reserve under chairs and pulled out for encores, in case you’re wondering.) The significance and symbolism of the change in apparel did not go unnoticed. Marshall amongst others thought it a sign of the orchestra’s maturation, but given the perceived elitist nature of the garment, the common inference was of a sartorial statement running contrary to the mission and spirit of el Sistema.
There are arguments to be made from both sides, of course. The tailcoat is the garb of the professional orchestra industry, and the SBO has a technical ability at least on par, if not exceeding, many of its professional counterparts. But it is undeniably an elitist industry, largely inflexible in the face of change, faltering if not failing, and one that continues to view education as a condescension necessary for grants, not an activity integral to mission. It’s difficult to understand why a celebrated ensemble like the SBO would actively choose to associate with such a troubled system, unless the intention were to change it from the inside out.
But what exactly does the tailcoat symbolize? As garments go, it has a curious duality. Symbol of the upper crust, certainly, but drape a white napkin over a left arm bent at the elbow, and the ultimate effect is exactly the opposite – and much closer to the origin of its tradition and history within the symphony orchestra.
The tailcoat is a holdover from an era in which musicians were normally considered servants, most often in the employ of the nobility, but also retained by the church or the city. Famous examples abound: over his career Johann Sebastian Bach provided his services to all three; at Esterháza, Joseph Haydn enjoyed privileges on par with the head cook; and Mozart was famously dismissed by Archbishop Colloredo of Salzburg. Like all servants at the time, musicians were required to wear a livery denoting their employer when performing their official functions, and the modern black tailcoat as worn by orchestra musicians is simply the evolution of this, a natural confluence of many sartorial trends, assimilations, and class co-options over the centuries.
Doubtlessly many musicians would chafe at the suggestion their role is one of service. The prevailing attitude is more Beethovenian (7th paragraph) than Bachian, which in all probability accounts for a large number of the problems of and perceptions towards the performing arts today. Although many symphony musicians in Europe are still today technically employees of their orchestra’s host city, the idea of service, that is to say, offering something supportive and sustaining to the community, has been lost or confused with the concept of servitude and its negative connotations. Society, for all its flaws and cynicisms, still has the capacity to recognize and appreciate those things that are of service, that make it stronger, as the interest in Sistema itself demonstrates. There’s an attitudinal shift afoot, in Britain at the governmental level, in the US within the untitled nobility of wealth, to afford patronage to those ideas and activities that contribute concretely to communities, that envision and create better lives for everyone, not just a ticket-purchasing 1%. If this is the spirit, one of service and contribution, in which the SBO wears tailcoats, I applaud them for it.
I own a tailcoat. It was custom tailored for me in 1998 by Burlington’s of Calcutta (not to be confused with the dismal and ubiquitous American chain “Burlington Coat Factory”) within the space of three days from a bolt of ultrafine merino Italian wool. The fabric cost $300 USD at the time, the labour $50. It is a beautiful garment, and it still fits, 14 years later. Whenever I have put it on, my sense has always been one of obligation: to the composers for whom I am a proxy; to the audience, to meet their rightful expectations of excellence and effort; to the orchestra, to create the space in which they can deliver their best technically and artistically; and to myself, to remember what a privilege it is to wear it and perform, and to be better every time I do so.