The classical Grammys (remember them?)

Lang Lang, left, and James Hetfield of Metallica, perform "One." (Matt Sayles)
Lang Lang, left, and Kirk Hammett of Metallica, perform “One.” (Matt Sayles)

Let’s pretend the Grammys matter for a minute. I don’t actually think they do. I know few classical music fans tuned into last night’s telecast, which certainly didn’t include much classical music, and I don’t think that the awards make more than 5 or 10 albums’ worth of difference in sales. (Come to think of it, in classical terms, that’s a lot. Four years ago, I wrote a piece about Hilary Hahn topping the Billboard Classical charts with sales of 1,000. This year, Hahn again has topped the charts with a new release. In one of its chart-topping weeks, it sold 341 copies.)

But the Grammys have come and gone, and they are what we have to show: some funhouse-mirror reflection of what classical music looks like to the voting members of the NARAS (not many of whom are particularly expert in classical music). So here’s the data, for what it’s worth.

It was no great surprise that Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra won for Best Orchestral Performance. There are few publicity campaigns more effective than becoming martyrs for your art, which is arguably what Vänskä became by resigning his post last fall, during a year-and-a-half-long lockout, when even the threat of his departure couldn’t force the orchestra’s administration to yield enough to work out some kind of compromise with musicians. (The administration ultimately did have to yield, possibly, it’s said, because it was violating the terms of its lease on Orchestra Hall by not presenting concerts there; it’s a shame it couldn’t have made concessions a few months earlier, when Vänskä was still in the picture.) Vänskä and Minnesota have been a musical highlight for years, and Vänskä had three previous Grammy nominations, so it’s nice that he gets one as a souvenir of an important and much-lamented tenure.

More surprising, perhaps, is the fact that the NSO’s own Christoph Eschenbach won in the still-new category (introduced last year) of Best Classical Compendium, for his recording of Hindemith with Midori and the NDR Sinfonieorchester. I’m guessing that name recognition, and Midori, greatly helped Eschenbach’s cause, since he was up against albums of Vagn Holmboe concertos, conducted by Dima Slobodeniouk, and music by Dobrinka Tabakova, conducted by Maxim Rysanov, and I imagine the Grammy jury going “Whaaa…?” about the other two (though for my money, the Tabakova album was the clear winner). Still, kudos to Eschenbach on his first Grammy; the Kennedy Center, where he is officially Music Director, will be very happy to be able to put it in his program biography.

The biggest single winner was the partnership of Maria Schneider and Dawn Upshaw, “Winter Morning Walks,” which, as well as taking the Grammy for Best Engineered Album, Classical, beat out Bartoli, DiDonato and Kaufmann for Best Classical Vocal Solo, and Arvo Pärt and Esa-Pekka Salonen for Best Contemporary Composition. (The Pärt recording, “Adam’s Lament,” did win in the Best Choral Performance category.) That’s big competition in today’s classical music world, but not necessarily on the Grammy scale; this is Upshaw’s fifth Grammy, and Schneider’s third, so voters certainly know who they are. More power to them; it’s nice to see Upshaw, who counts as a veteran these days, getting some attention for an adventurous project, and Schneider’s classical star is very much in the ascendant. So is Caroline Shaw’s, as winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Music, and if she didn’t take the composition Grammy, the album that won the Pulitzer for her, the eponymous debut album from the singing group Roomful of Teeth, won for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance.

In opera, the fact that Thomas Adès’s “The Tempest” beat a new “Ring” recording by Christian Thieleman may speak to local pride, since the recording captured the Metropolitan Opera production; I doubt it was a comment on the singing on Thielemann’s recording, uneven though it was. As for instrumental solo, I would wager that it was the combination of Evelyn Glennie, John Corigliano (remembered by some voters) and the general “cool” factor of percussion that helped their recording — Corigliano’s percussion concerto “Conjurer” — beat out Yefim Bronfman, Leila Josefowicz and Gloria Cheng (all previous nominees and/or Grammy winners themselves).

The real takeaway message about the classical Grammys, in a trend that’s been continuing for some time, is that major labels are as irrelevant as the awards themselves. Gone are the days when presence on a big label helped gain you prominence and recognition in the field, or among voters. This year, seven different labels took eight classical Grammys, and the only one to get multiple Grammys, Artistshare for the Schneider/Upshaw release, is a crowdsourced enterprise along the model of Kickstarter. The other labels were BIS, New Amsterdam, Naxos, Ondine, the ECM New Series, and, oh yes, a company called Deutsche Grammophon, which once dominated classical recording. Name recognition will certainly help you win a Grammy. But if you want name recognition, as the ArtistShare model may show, you have to go out and create it yourself.

Updated: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified James Hetfield of Metallica.

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Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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Anne Midgette · January 22