The Baton's Been Passed Over

Sir Georg Solti is the all-time top winner at the Grammys with 31 awards, more than Michael Jackson and the Rolling Stones combined.
Sir Georg Solti is the all-time top winner at the Grammys with 31 awards, more than Michael Jackson and the Rolling Stones combined. (1995 Photo By Paul Hurschmann -- Associated Press)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 10, 2008

When the first-ever Grammy Awards ceremony was held in 1958, a "music critic" was someone who wrote about classical music. Today, "music" generally means everything but classical music, and classical music awards are not even shown on the annual Grammy telecast (though the pianist Lang Lang, who has pop-size aspirations, is playing on tonight's show). So irrelevant are the Grammys to our field that as a classical music critic I plan to celebrate the telecast of the 50th annual edition of the Grammy Awards as I have those in preceding years: by doing something else.

For critics of all stripes, deriding the Grammys as increasingly insignificant is an annual ritual. But the classical Grammys are particularly irrelevant. "In the classical world, winning a Grammy does not translate into record sales," says Elaine Martone, the executive vice president of Telarc Records and a four-time Grammy winner. "People kind of pooh-pooh it, because it doesn't get telecast recognition."

Classical music looks on the Grammys much as the artsy kid in school, engrossed in creative pursuits, occasionally peeking over to see if the star athlete has noticed him -- only to look down his nose at him when he does. It's not as if classical music has been overlooked at the Grammys. The top Grammy winner of all time is the late Sir Georg Solti (31); and Pierre Boulez (26) and the late Vladimir Horowitz (25) are in the top five, having won more Grammys than Michael Jackson (13), the Rolling Stones (a mere two), or even U2 (22).

"Boulez never shows up to accept" the award when he wins, observed Barbara Haws, the archivist of the New York Philharmonic and a former governors' board member of her local chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), the Grammys' administrative body. "But it's always in his bio."

Some say that a Grammy is a sign of respect from one's peers in the business. This is pure spin. For classical music, it is not clear what the award means at all. The nomination process involves labels submitting their best releases -- Matt Whittier, senior marketing manager of Naxos records, put in 150 nominations this year -- which are then voted on by some 11,000 eligible NARAS members to yield 10 albums in each category. These 10 are cut to five by a committee of industry insiders in Los Angeles in November. This process yields an odd hodgepodge of familiar names and recordings that seem to have come in from left field: This year's most nominated classical album is a choral work by the Russian composer Alexander Grechaninov, hardly a household name, performed by the Kansas City Chorale and the Phoenix Bach Choir.

The final voting is completed by those same eligible members of NARAS -- "eligible" by virtue of appearing in some capacity on at least 12 professionally recorded albums. There is no restriction on who votes on what. A single member can vote in no more than nine out of the 31 fields of competition (classical music is the largest single field), but there is nothing to stop someone voting in classical, country and R&B.

The academy declines to say how many votes actually go to classical recordings -- if, indeed, it even knows. One tangible result of this process is that once voters recognize a name, they appear to cling to it, be it Boulez, Michael Tilson Thomas (whose Mahler cycle on the San Francisco Symphony's own label has racked up several) or even the composer Carlos Ch¿vez, an ongoing edition of whose chamber music on the little-known Cambria label captured Grammys for best small-ensemble performance in 2003 and 2004.

It may take very few votes for classical music success. The classical industry still remembers the flap in 1986 when the Atlanta Symphony won five Grammys after the Atlanta chapter of NARAS beefed up its membership by some 160 people. Atlanta has continued to do well in the awards, whether because of a disproportionate area membership, quality recordings or the fact, as Telarc's Martone points out, that the orchestra is one of the few that has continued to record regularly while other orchestras have lost their recording contracts, one by one.

For the industry is shrinking dramatically. In the days when Solti was raking in Grammys, there was still a mass market for classical music, as Henry Fogel, the former president of the Chicago Symphony, can testify. "When I arrived in 1985 at the Chicago Symphony," he said in a phone interview last year, the orchestra received "close to $2 million a year from record royalties. Ten percent of the budget came from the Solti catalogue."

But in 2003, when Fogel retired, recordings were bringing in less than $200,000 of a $55 million budget. Solti's albums, he said, reliably sold between 60,000 and 100,000 copies; 25,000 was considered a failure. Today, sales of about 5,000 are enough to land an album in the upper reaches of Billboard's classical charts.

The downturn in the recording industry -- call it a collapse, call it a realignment -- is not confined to classical music. But classical music, where the crisis hit first, has perhaps learned to deal with it in advance of the music industry at large. Today, orchestras have begun recording again -- on their own in-house labels. Recording is no longer seen as a significant source of revenue as much as an image-booster: Zarin Mehta, the president of the New York Philharmonic, described CDs as something to give to patrons. Now, those CDs are winning Grammys.

On the one hand, the Grammys are an empty stamp of approval for the outside world. "When you're pitching classical artists for mainstream coverage," says Albert Imperato, who was the American head of Universal Classics before becoming a founding partner in the PR firm 21C Media Group, "telling them an artist has been nominated is great. The booking agent in a TV show thinks, I might not know them, but they've won a Grammy."

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