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Natural Born Marketeers

Social media have left their mark on classical music too. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have quite a say in how a musician presents themselves. The upcoming generation of world stars seems to care little either for tried and trusted methods, or for our what we’re used to. Or are we dealing merely well tempered appearance?

“21 incredibly hot classical musicians you need to know” though this seems like fictitious parody, this brazen challenge was actually used as a headline in a news medium some years ago. The article provided exactly what it promised: from cellist Stjepan Hauser to pianist Lang Lang it showed male exponents of classical music who are also graced with being easy on the eye. The article went on to say of the latter: “Screw all the stiff, straight-laced performers out there. You need a man that embraces his wild side, and Lang Lang does just that with his swaying body and waving arms.”

Yuja Wang, photo by Kirk Edwards

This obviously extreme yet telling example clearly shows how differently the public consumes classical music (and its performers) compared to even just a few years ago. This change of tack is due not only to the media; increasingly the artists too are playing an active role in it. Because although the example referred to sounds more like counterproductive sensationalism, in actual fact it is not that atypical of a trend in which a deliberately built image conveyed with both still and moving pictures has a significant role in classical music too, in terms of approaching the public. The practical implementation increasingly takes place in various social media, especially the three most popular: Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Superstar Lang Lang for instance uses social media to build his brand, and he (or rather the team of professionals working for him) presents himself as a thoroughly luxury brand. His social media pages are not limited to strictly promotional activities dedicated to performances and various releases, but neither do they offer the regular Facebook-Instagram fare. He has no time for photos of food, or apparently sneak shots of “me watering the flowers in a tracksuit”: Lang Lang always appears in the smartest suits, on the stages of the most famous concert halls, flashing expensive wristwatches, in the company of filmstars and other famous folk. This might prompt us to reflect that in building an image reflecting material plenty and power, the modern exponent of classical music, which was once the privilege of the highest social classes, is doing nothing new.

A similarly well-honed physical appearance conveying a sense of high quality can be seen in Yuja Wang’s social media pages as well. A couple of years ago she too created a stir that went beyond the limits of the music press, when at a concert in America she came on stage in a daringly short, tight, loud orange designer dress. The young Chinese pianist, who at the Budapest Spring Festival will perform mainly twentieth-century chamber works, including some Bartók, with Daishin Kashimoto and Andreas Ottensamer, later said of the event: “I simply gave of myself, and put on a dress that I would wear, say, to go to a club. I was 24 years old, and I just dressed the way people usually do at that age.”

Bearing in mind that Rosalyn Tureck, the American pianist who made a name with her interpretations of Bach half a century ago was upset when a photographer dared to accentuate her legs in a portrait shot, we have to admit how much attitudes to the public portrayal of classical musicians have changed. Some are able to use this new situation and the opportunities afforded by social media in the service of their public image at an almost artistic level. One particularly adept at this is Anna Netrebko, who in the text-based world of Twitter concentrates just on promotion, but on her Instagram and Facebook pages she moves into a different gear altogether, and with regular pictures and videos creates an interesting diva figure. One who while eccentric, travelling the world in amazing clothes, as is traditionally expected of opera divas, is also startlingly intimate, in line with the new times. We see her in pyjamas or tobogganing: she gives her followers the momentary illusion of being close enough to reach out and touch.

For opera divas, who have always presented themselves as colourful personalities, this new, reinforced presence is of course welcome, but they are not the only ones gifted at using it. The key is probably to be natural, well exemplified by American composer Nico Muhly, who doesn’t mince his words on Twitter, and this is what brings him followers in droves. In his case even flooding his Instagram feed with pictures of his dog doesn’t seem like a cheap trick. Cleverly complementing all this he uses Facebook mainly to advertise concerts and to share reviews on them. But of course even people who hold true to the centuries-old notion that nothing should distract from music have much to gain in social media. This is how the pianist Daniil Trifonov, also performing at the Budapest Spring Festival, approaches the public, so it’s not surprising that his Instagram feed is timid, while on Facebook he exudes the same aura of top quality as Lang Lang, though far more indirectly: the numerous videos and photos almost never draw attention to his person, but confidently focus on exciting moments in concerts and rehearsals.

Strength in Numbers

In an imaginary competition for image-building between the artists in this article, the western world has nothing to be ashamed of alongside the Chinese pianists: after Lang Lang (479 thousand followers on Facebook, 181 thousand on Instagram, 285 thousand on Twitter), next is Anna Netrebko the Russian opera star of Kuban Cossack background (341 thousand followers on Facebook, 327 thousand on Instagram, 53 thousand on Twitter), and following close on her heels is Yuja Wang (153 thousand followers on Facebook, 57 thousand on Instagram, and 24 thousand on Twitter). Compared to them the somewhat more modest figures for Daniil Trifonov (38 thousand followers on Facebook, 6 thousand on Instagram, 7 thousand on Twitter) and Nico Muhly (13 thousand followers on Facebook, 9 thousand on Instagram, 80 thousand on Twitter), should be taken together with the figures for the British magazine Gramophone, one of the leading organs globally for classical music, which has about 60 thousand followers on Facebook. (Figures as of February 2018.)

András Greff

This article first appeared in BSF Magazine, published by Budapest Spring Festival. To view the magazine in full, please click here.

Yuja Wang, photo by Norbert Kniat