Violinist Kam Ning

Concerto for a Beauty

Above: Singapore-born violinist Kam Ning. Photo from her official site.

When we were writing at the Flying Inkpot, back in the late 1990s, the rise of “cover model”-style marketing (and make-overs) had begun in earnest. No longer satisfied with dignified stares,  contemplative poses, faraway looks in E minor, concert-ready tuxedos and sequined dresses with mezzo-equipped bosoms, recording labels had realized that if you put a pretty face on the cover, the CD sold more copies. As they say, you can play the violin and still look cool and sexy, you know.

So anyway, those days, it was preeeetty obvious what was happening, and no doubt, we skeptical reviewers had to pick on the performances in the name of protecting you, the reader who has but S$twenty-something to spare for one CD and facing 18 recordings of the Sibelius concerto, from buying a pretty cover with an average performance (which happened to me maybe once. Twice perhaps).

Besides, this was the era of Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys.

I was into Alanis Morissette and Sheryl Crow for a time.  As well as Elva Hsiao. There, I admitted it.

But thankfully, the hype passed(?), and I’m glad to report that the classical music industry survived the marketing makeover and proved that you, indeed, certified, definitely, authentically with or without a G-string, can look hot and still sweat out a neat performance.

We had the Joshua Bells and Anne-Sophie Mutters, we had handsome young singing lads who could counter tenors in looks and pitch, and – oh gosh – the mezzos and sopranos had a pageant with the likes of Angela Georghiu, Renée Fleming, Sumi Jo – just to name a few of those still beautiful and still singing; and hey even our Lee Hui Min and Kam Ning grew up to be the elegantly poised, beautiful violinists, joining the young hotshot Russia-trained conductor, Darrell Ang (an Inkpot alumnus, no less!) in conquering various cities all over the classical world. And no, I haven’t forgotten Vanessa Mae.

A quick survey of the net, especially on the websites of various major recording labels, proves that made-over mezzos and perfectly preened pianists are still being pushed to decorate webpages and CD covers. (And ugly musicians or those with 80s’ hair are still replaced by 19th century paintings).

Here’s a quick, non-exhaustive, totally unscientific run-down of what that particular period was like:

The Girls

In the beginning, girls were treated pretty much like the boys. They needed minimal make-up, and were dressed like they were rehearsing or performing.  Sometimes they WERE photographed in rehearsal. And sometimes the conductor also didn’t need a hair cut.

1985 (The CD’s release, not his hair)

Being naturally more interesting, the ladies generally got the idea first. Or at least their marketing people did. This 1995 release, below, was one of the earliest I remember where, suddenly, a recording appeared interesting not because it had any familiar famous names, but because you weren’t actually looking at names.

1995: Leila Josefowicz

“Oh by the way, what is she playing? Oh that. ” The repertoire is an afterthought.  It’s like Tom Cruise’s movie posters, where his name is bigger than the movie’s title. And exactly like pop music, where you buy an album because of the star, not because of what she’s actually singing (or if she can even sing).

The German label Deutsche Grammophon was one of the leaders (still is) in made-over artists. One of their most popular models instruments was that ice-cool duchess of violinists Anne-Sophie Mutter, who looked a little bit like Cindy Crawford from some angles. But no, she’s not really my type.

1996 release. Reviewed on this blog by the way.

More at her website.

Also, here’s an interesting article: Anne-Sophie Mutter – The Fiddler Who Should Be Banned.

More examples of covers more than happy to feature their chosen ladies:

Marie Scheublé, Monte Carlo PO/Pfaff
1997: Marie Scheuble
2003: Japanese violinist Suwanai Akiko.

Suwanai-san has even appeared in a Shiseido commercial.

2007: Another somewhat-difficult-to-spell Eastern European name.

Above: Georgia-born Lisa Batiashvili just signed a contract with – you guessed it – Deutsche Grammophon. She looks especially hot in this Sony album of the Beethoven concerto.  Facebook fanpage? Yes, available.

So there you see. FYI, I picked only the covers for recordings of the Sibelius. Because after all, this is a Sibelius-championing blog, not a beauty blog. There’re lots of even prettier covers out there, with other repertoire. Some are showcased below.

The Guys

The guys have had a much tougher time. Well, maybe it’s because they don’t consider it a necessity. After all it’s the quality of the playing that counts right? Music is about inner beauty right?  And Beethoven never combed his hair anyway.  But no, that’s exactly the point – we’re talking about marketing and sales figures here, not just the music. So bear with it guys.

Well, in the olden days, nice scenery would do. This was especially easy for Sibelius albums. Here suddenly, the link with nature is terribly convenient.  Forest, mountain, sunrise, sunset. Kinda like this blog actually.

1988: Tapiola, there-forest.

More nice scenery, and, if that’s not available, you can always use paintings or photoshop.

Dong-Suk Kang, Czecho-Slovak Radio SO/Leaper

Clearly, women are prettier than paintings, and paintings are prettier than men.

The exception to this was – still is – (are you ready?) ….. OLD MEN.

Old, DEAD men.

Old, dead, GOOD men.

If you were a HISTORIC old dead good man violinist, you earned a place on the cover, so there.

1997:  David Oistrakh collection.

Above: David Oistrakh (1908 – 1974) – old, dead and still one of the awesomest Sibelius violinists despite looking like a bank CEO.

Below: Jascha Heifetz (1901 – 1987), another awesome violinist, and with a name like a European F1 racer. He is such a great dead violinist, the CD has to proclaim that this. Is. LIVING Stereo.

2005: High speed, high fats!

And EVEN better, some of these old dead good historic men had OLD VIOLINS which were three, sometimes FOUR or FIVE times as dead, I mean as old as them! Antonio Stradivarius is still beaming in heaven!

Now one thing you notice about all these great dead violinists, is that they never look you in the face. They are too busy being great violinists, which means you have to concentrate really hard and ignore the audience. Even on the cover.

And so, below: Yehudi Menuhin (1916 – 1999) – bless his soul. Many great violinists  started out at his school. Some are very pretty.

Yehudi Menuhin

Nope, not going to look at you… :

OK, so let’s try something else. Let’s try a little male-bonding. Even in the earlier days, the guys often paired up. I guess it builds confidence. Now they can look at you.


But very often they wore suits or boring jackets. Then one day, Nigel Kennedy came on the scene. I think he was the one who started making classical music look cool(er). Not Kenny G.

Nigel Kennedy didn’t wear suits much, he liked funky clothing like loud ties and oversized jackets. He also had spiky hair. See Google Images.  But for a start, he also did the concentrating-on-the-violin… concentrating-on-the-violin… thing.

1995 (Release date)

It was quite popular, this looking downwards intently and purposefully. Maybe it’s a guy thing:

You would be forgiven for thinking these guys were having a concert in the men’s restroom.

Maybe, after a while, the guys decided to look up. But were a little shy. Hee.

But as you and I know, a guy being shy is not the same as a girl being shy:

*Fans self* Whoo, hot. More on this babe later.

And finally, the handsome princes arrive, and they’re quite willing to look at you straight in the face.

Not old. Not dead. Good-looking, good-sounding, and just the right amount of historique-potential.

Speaking of historic, here’s another interesting case:

But there’s just one problem here… and the observant among you will already realize… That, this is a woman.  (But a legendary violinist who died tragically at that.)

No offence intended. But you get covers like this with lots of shadows. Well it was a B&W world anyway.

I guess the other lesson to be learnt is that…. colour photography, makeovers and modern marketing go well together, and hey, we are the generation that got it first.

If you got the looks, flaunt it – use it to promote something rare and good – like classical music. Don’t wait too long, because after some years, you will – assuming you’re good – begin to be classified under “Classic”, and thereafter, “Historic”, which is not good for your skin.

About that babe earlier, she happened to be the 2nd image Google Images showcased when I googled for “Sibelius violin concerto”.  In the source article, the picture file no longer exists. But Google hung on to her pretty pic proper. You see? Signs of artificial intelligence! Yay Web 3.0!

Her name is Nicola Benedetti and she’s from the Menuhin school, and yes, Facebook page also available. Here she is looking deliciously cute at the C8 Children’s Forum, in 2005.

OK moving on, let’s conclude with our Singapore-born talents. We have at least 3 stars, whose good looks are a fitting match for their musical prowess:

Min Lee, otherwise familiar as Lee Huei Min.

More pics here at her official site. In the distant past, I’ve reviewed a couple of her performances at the Inkpot. Follow her and watch clips of her playing on her @minleeviolin Instagram as well as her violin school, Wolfgang Violin Studio.

One of the first Singaporean names to appear in our classical violinist scene really was Kam Ning – at least for my generation. This I remember well from the newspapers in the 1990s.

Photo from her official site and gallery.

And you know what, she plays on a violin that’s 10.371 times older than her!

Finally, an old friend of mine, the conductor Darrell Ang who can not only be called “multiple award-winning” but also a regular conductor of the Singapore Symphony.  I predicted, during the Inkpot years, that he’s the most likely among us to become a famous musician, and sure enough, he went to Russia, and now he’s  more than happening. Not that it was difficult to predict but still, I’m glad Darrell made it.

Facebook fan page? Even better, here’s the man himself.

I visited DG’s website while writing this post. If you take a look at their Artists directory, they would very much like to “draw your attention” to these two recently-signed artists….

Gorgeous is good. Old habits die hard. But I’m not really complaining. By the way, German lyric soprano Mojca Erdmann has even modeled for a Mont Blanc billboard advert.

So, who else do you think is hot in the classical music industry?

Several violinists were harmed during the production of this post. Sorry.
Also, this has been a completely unscientific and fairly random essay.
If you can’t take a joke about your favourite violinists, please go away.

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Leon is Singapore's resident champion of Jean Sibelius.

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