Come spring, a touch of color can brighten up any outfit — even that of a traditionally staid symphony musician. The Seattle Symphony, in New York’s Carnegie Hall this week, will be highlighting their typical black attire with a rainbow of blue scarves, neckties and pocket squares, created by local designer Michael Cepress in honor of composer John Luther Adams’ work, “Become Ocean.”
Cepress, chatting in his Chinatown International District studio last week, said the symphony approached him with the idea of “using wardrobe as a means of doing something special.” (He was known to the organization from participating in 2012’s “Bedecked and Bejeweled,” a symphony fundraiser that showcased local designers and artists.) The Carnegie Hall concert is part of the Spring for Music festival, which takes an unconventional approach to classical music performance. One of the terms of the festival, Cepress said, is that musicians can’t wear the usual formal black tie.
In planning meetings, Cepress and symphony reps quickly ruled out new garments for the 104-member orchestra: too expensive, too labor-intensive. (“That would have been a two-year project, easily,” Cepress said.) It was decided to “take the basic look that they have and accent it, bringing a signature something that would decorate the stage, highlight the musicians in a new way. Also, conceptually relate to the piece that they’re performing.”
That piece, “Become Ocean,” made its world premiere at the symphony last year and won the Pulitzer Prize for music last month. Listening to recordings of it, Cepress was struck by the work’s “sense of an organic expanse,” and took his cue from the sea and its coloration. The scarves, ties and squares are silk, custom-dyed (by local master dyer Kellie Dunn
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) in subtle gradations of blue and aqua.
On stage at Carnegie Hall, Cepress said, the musicians are set in three distinct groups, against a white backdrop. One tone of blue was assigned to each group — “so the big picture of the stage has this nice, subtle but I think very elegant shift of blues across it, kind of a sea.” Within each group are variations on its dominant tone, to create a mottled, watery effect.
Of primary concern was that the pieces be easily manageable. For the concert, the symphony men will wear black trousers, shirts and jackets, each with a matching necktie and pocket square. (Cepress is encouraging “a softer look” for placement of the pocket squares, rather than a harsh fold.) Women have more leeway in their outfits, but will all be in solid black, and Cepress consulted with symphony members to make sure that their scarves (available in two sizes) would in no way interfere with movement. Depending on her specific instrument and needs, a musician may wear a small scarf tied high around her neck, a long one draped around her shoulders, or any number of other options. “We wanted to let each musician have a little individuality,” Cepress said. “Being a very lightweight scarf, it’s quite easy to wear.”
After the Carnegie Hall concert, the orchestra will return home — and to its traditional, unadorned black. But Cepress, who’s heartened by “a great round of applause” from the composer (who “loves what we’ve done” and requested a set for himself to wear), hopes that this might be a first step in exploring the potential of using wardrobe as a way of visually reinforcing the power of music. “As a designer,” he said, “my mind is just reeling with the possibilities.”
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org