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This past Sunday, the Grammy Awards took place.  One of the "side" categories is, as you might expect, classical, with one modest bit of coverage on the Grammy Awards' site here.  Given that everyone goes on about how the CD is dying out, not to mention concerns about recording piracy through file sharing and burning discs, in classical music-land, one wonders why orchestras and other classical artists keep on keeping on with trying to make, never mind sell, recordings of mostly the same core repertoire over and over.

Of course, being a loser, I don't have the answer to that question.  But a few recent examples of two orchestras still going on with the recording game feature in this diary.  One involves The Philadelphia Orchestra and its new music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (YNS for short).  The other involves a group a bit closer to home, namely these folks, where if you catch this diary before 9 PM CST, you can actually hear via the internets the work being recorded commercially.  The whole concert starts at 8 PM CST, but the work for the recording starts a bit after 9 PM, where the composer is actually in town (yup, music by a live guy from a symphony orchestra - will wonders never cease).  More below the flip.....

First, regarding the Fabulous Philadelphians and their return to the commercial classical recording market, the orchestra's official press release is here.  David Patrick Stearns has this article from the Philadelphia Inquirer about this recording news.  YNS and the orchestra are planning to record, for the German label Deutsche Grammophon (DG), Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (Le sacre du printemps) along with 3 arrangements of J.S. Bach for orchestra by Leopold Stokowski, who was music director in Philadelphia for a bit over 25 years, starting in 1912.  We certainly don't lack for recordings of either set of selections now, particularly Sacre (of which more in a moment), although Stokowski arrangements of JSB aren't quite so thick on the ground these days in CD and record shops.

Normally these days with classical recordings, the idea is to record the live concert performances of a given work and mash together the good parts, with a touch-up recording session to clean out bits like applause after the end.  However, according to DPS, the DG set-up apparently is going for broke, in more ways than one:

"The recording conditions promise to be optimum: Rather than editing together live concerts, as most American orchestras do, the music will be recorded under more expensive studio conditions at the Kimmel Center's Verizon Hall for release later this year."
While I'm pretty ignorant of how much orchestra musicians get paid for studio time for recordings, my general sense is that those fees are pretty hefty.  This was from back in the heyday of classical music on record, when recordings were plentiful (as was audience demand) and the classical music record industry had boatloads of money.  But that was then.  That makes this next bit in DPS' article interesting to think about:
"The orchestra declined to discuss numbers or the nature of its agreement with Deutsche Grammophon (nicknamed in the industry "the yellow label"). [Jeremy Rothman, the orchestra's VP for artistic planning] would say the arrangement had financial support from the recording company but was also possible thanks to 'a great deal of interest and flexibility from our players...to find the best conditions for the hall and for the ensemble.'"
Probable translation; reduced studio time fees compared to the past.  However, given that they're going from a status of no recent recording to one of the big prestige labels still out there, one takes what one can get.  DPS notes briefly the orchestra's past history of recording with earlier music directors (and in the case of Charles Dutoit, chief conductor):
"Though past music directors Stokowski, Eugene Ormandy and Riccardo Muti recorded with the orchestra for a variety of labels, the orchestra was without a recording presence for much of Wolfgang Sawallisch's era (1993-2003), recorded intermittently for the Ondine label under Christoph Eschenbach (2003-2008), and hardly at all under Charles Dutoit (2008-2012)."
So in one sense, part of the reason for an orchestra to make recordings with each of its music directors is legacy, since without audio recordings, all we have are memories.  Recordings are a distortion of actually being in the hall, of course, but for distant past times, that's all that we have for the present day.  

One result of that is, of course, many, many recordings out there of a single given work.  In the case of The Rite, in this post on the NYT's ArtsBeat blog, Daniel J. Wakin also noted the past competition that YNS and the Philadelphians will be up against:

"The Rite is not exactly under-represented on disc: Decca recently released a box set of 37 [sic] recordings of the work."
BTW, the box set that Wakin refers to is this one, and it's actually 38 recordings of the work, 35 orchestral, 3 of the piano-duet version.  But that aside, in the comments section, 'jim' from Boston put his finger on the key subtext behind the point that I made earlier:
"It's great that a major American orchestra will actually be recorded by a major label, but given this, now unique, opportunity couldn't they have come up with something a little more adventurous? "The Rite of Spring" is a masterpiece and there are already many, many excellent and thrilling performances available. Another recording is not likely to get much attention for the Philadelphia or Mr. Nézet-Séguin."
Well, actually, I beg to differ a little, given all the hype that has attended to YNS in the past few years, as his career has really taken off.  If nothing else, local demand will be pretty decent, by classical standards.  Plus, in the case of The Philadelphia Orchestra, they went through a nasty recent period of bankruptcy, the most prominent major US orchestra ever to go through Chapter 11.  It's not hard to imagine a lot of hard feelings from the orchestra towards the management.  However, if someone like YNS can be the knight in shining armor to help right the ensemble towards a firmer footing, recordings can be one aspect of that.

But this raises the larger bean-counter question of sales, where in the pop world, Beyonce or Lady Gaga can sell millions of albums in a day.  By contrast, in classical land, a recording is lucky if it sells 1000 copies in one year, by my rough back-of-the-envelope guess.  This may be more of a problem when a given new recording is yet another recording of Beethoven symphonies, or Carmina Burana, or Tchaikovsky or Mahler.  This brings me to the second orchestra continuing to keep a toe in commercial classical recording, namely the local group here, the St. Louis Symphony (SLSO).  There are two key differences in the recording projects under consideration between Philly and the 'Lou:

(a) The work that the SLSO will be recording is John Adams' City Noir, for Nonesuch Records.  Nonesuch has a blog post about the recording project here, which states in part:

"Nonesuch Records returns to Powell Hall in St. Louis, Missouri, this weekend to record the St. Louis Symphony's performances of John Adams's City Noir, conducted by Music Director David Robertson, this Friday and Saturday, February 15 and 16. John Adams will be in attendance for the recording."
But there's a bonus if you're not in STL, or in STL and are not going to the concert tonight, namely that:
"The Saturday evening performance will also be broadcast live as part of the regular STL Symphony broadcast series on St. Louis Public Radio, 90.7-KWMU, and streamed live at stlpublicradio.org."
Hence this is yet another autobot posting from 3CM (loser, he), so that he's not actually around to respond to comments at this moment.  In addition, as Post-Dispatch classical critic Sarah Bryan Miller noted in this blog post off the Post-Dispatch's "Culture Club" blog:
"Adams...[will] do the pre-concert talk both nights with Robertson and then take in the performance from the audience."
So if you have the choice between:

(a) Stay at home to do SNLC, or:
(b) 'Meet the composer' at the symphony, in what looks like a really nice program:

Any wonder why 3CM isn't at the SNLC fort presently? ;-P  But 3CM digresses, as usual.

The point here is that this recording of City Noir will be the first commercial recording of this work.  Adams is also scheduled to write a new saxophone concerto to be performed this coming October, again per Nonesuch's blogpost:

"Additionally, Nonesuch will be back in Powell Hall during the St. Louis Symphony's 2013–14 season to record the October 5 and 6, 2013, performances of a new John Adams concerto written for saxophone, a St. Louis Symphony co-commission and local premiere. The concerto and City Noir will be combined and released by Nonesuch Records at a future date."
This is actually a perfect example of the kind of classical recording that should be made nowadays, namely of new music with the composer around to help with the process, so that audiences beyond the concert hall who probably won't have the chance to hear this new work live any time soon, if ever, can give it a listen.  

(FWIW, the first Nonesuch recording of John Adams' music with the SLSO and conductor David Robertson is at ~100,000 ranking on Amazon.com's sales, which isn't that bad for a classical CD these days not in its 1st run.)

I actually heard the BBC Proms internet transmission of City Noir this past July, which was Prom 4.  To be honest, I didn't think that it was Adams' best work, and was kind of diffuse.  (The local critic kind of thought the same thing from her review of the concert yesterday morning.)  However, the kids from Juilliard and the Royal Academy of Music were clearly having a blast, as Adams was as conductor.  

At the time of this autobot posting, I'm actually at the hall now.  If any of you read this in time, you can listen in via the KWMU site to the concert.  Or until I get back to respond to any comments and spread DK mojo, you can observe the usual SNLC protocol, namely your loser stories of the week.  (Thought I forgot, didn't you?)

Originally posted to chingchongchinaman on Sat Feb 16, 2013 at 05:00 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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