When violinist Peter Fragman took the stage at SubCulture in downtown Manhattan on Tuesday evening, it was immediately apparent he had already accomplished what many of today’s classical musicians have strived for in vain: to redefine the art form for new audiences. If other up-and-coming violinists think of themselves as standing on the shoulders of giants like Paganini and Kreisler, Fragman has dismounted from these dead-and-gone luminaries and landed firmly in a pair of black-and-white Converse All Star sneakers.
His sporty footwear alone transformed an otherwise traditional recital of Mozart, Schumann, and Kurtág, into a hip, new experience that dissolved any remaining notion that classical music is elitist or outdated. As his shoes took the spotlight, every note drawn from his 1802 Guadagnini reverberated throughout the hall with an emotional accessibility previously unknown to today’s listeners of live concert music. Gasps resonated through the hall as Fragman suavely executed the ascending motive that interrupts the lyrical melody in the opening of Mozart’s G Major Sonata. One young audience member could be heard whispering audibly to her friend, “This. Is. So. Freaking. Cool.” It was as if the enraptured audience was hearing the work performed by Mozart himself, assuming Mozart had also worn a pair of Chuck Taylor high-tops.
As Fragman tore into Schumann’s stormy D Minor Violin Sonata, his casually-clad feet pranced about the stage. Clearly Fragman did not come to show off his impeccable violin technique, but rather to tell a story—an enthralling drama whose raw humanity transcended the old schism between art and entertainment. Through Fragman’s sneakers, the schizophrenic personality embodied in Schumann’s music came to life in a vivid, high-definition spectacle that no IMAX 3D theater could even begin to approximate. There would have been no need for a pre-concert lecture, as Fragman’s All Stars expressed the music’s deeper significance with startling musicological clarity. The whole event was as smart as it was sexy, and the audience was enthralled.
By the final movement of the Schumann, the more than a hundred attendees crowded into the intimate underground venue kept their eyes glued to Fragman’s shoes, which imbued the piece with something that every prior performance ever given has lacked: complete and utter badassery. As the sonata came to a close, the audience erupted with applause and ecstatic cheers before breaking into a roaring chant, “Shoe – Man! Shoe – Man!”, and demanding he play it again from start to finish. Fragman agreed, and the audience—still on its feet after a lengthy standing ovation—swayed and sang along with the sonata for the entire encore.
But the formidable badassery Fragman’s shoes displayed in the Schumann was soon overshadowed by how effortlessly cool they made him look while playing selections from Györgi Kurtág’s “Signs, Games and Messages.” It was as if the piece were being performed by a member of Arcade Fire, and the atonal melodies were songs about love and heartbreak. At recital’s end, I witnessed a young man remove one of his loafers and hold it up in front of his face while shaking his head, before saying to himself, “I get it now.”
Ever since Fragman began deviating boldly from traditional concert footwear just over a year ago, his recitals have been boosting classical music’s popularity in America and around the world. Over the past year, classical music sales on iTunes have nearly tripled, while the New York Philharmonic is considering expanding the renovations to David Geffen hall to accommodate its thousands of new subscribers. Music lessons are back in high demand, while soaring Converse stock has sent investors scrambling to buy shares. One can only wonder what Fragman will have up his sleeve next, or if there will be a sleeve at all.