The Grammy Awards for classical music are irrelevant: I, and many others, have been saying that for years. But as we prepare for Sunday’s annual ceremony, with its tiny window of classical-music opportunity (there are eight classical music categories!), calling the awards irrelevant strikes me as imprecise.
True, the classical Grammys are not much more than an arbitrary popularity contest among the nominees, in which voters tend to stick to what they’ve chosen before. (If we’re taking bets on who will win for best orchestral performance, my money is on the latest Shostakovich album by Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which won the same category in 2016 and 2017).
But the real issue for orchestras is that the classical Grammys have never really reflected what happens in the concert hall. Sure, the performers are the same, but the repertory has always been markedly different. While orchestra seasons tend to focus on conservative repertory — Mozart and Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky — recordings have been more reflective of current tastes and trends. The winningest Grammy composer, in the best orchestral performance category, is Mahler, followed by Bartok and Shostakovich, Stravinsky and Debussy. This gulf between concert hall and recording has widened as the sea change in the recording industry, marked by declining CD sales and decreasing importance of the major labels, has sparked a proliferation of smaller labels and less-known works.
There are signs, though, that this, too, is changing. These days, the classical Grammys are much more closely linked to live orchestral performance than they’ve been for quite some time. That’s because most orchestral recordings these days are made during performances, and are issued, in many cases, on orchestras’ own in-house labels.
Recording, increasingly, is part of an orchestra’s mandate. And since, as we’ve seen, recordings tend to feature different repertoire than standard subscription programs, this trend of recording concerts for release is contributing, slowly but surely, to a perceptible broadening of the orchestral repertoire.
“We want to record the works that haven’t been overexposed,” says Krishna Thiagarajan, the new president and chief executive of the Seattle Symphony. Seattle has two recordings in the Grammy running this year: two symphonies by the early 20th-century Danish composer Carl Nielsen on its own label; and a violin concerto by the 59-year-old American Aaron Jay Kernis, which the orchestra commissioned and is nominated for best contemporary composition. “We want to add to a canon of works that haven’t been heard enough by audiences, and that we are proud to share.”
Thiagarajan went to Seattle after three years as chief executive of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. “I left the U.S. to work in Europe in order to do some programming I felt was not really possible to do in a large American city market,” he says. But now, the tide is changing enough to bring him back.
It isn’t just the repertoire that has historically divided recordings and live concerts. There has also been a significant difference in the audience, as well. The live concert audience skewed female; the classical record-buying public was male-dominated. But, as the major labels stopped making as many studio recordings of orchestras, and orchestras stepped into the breach, that divide might start to shrink, as well. These days, the in-house equipment many orchestras use for their archival recordings is good enough to create professional-grade releases. This brings us ever nearer to a future where you can walk out of a concert hall and download the music you just heard — which implies, among other things, that concert audiences overlap to a greater extent with the audience for the recording.
Few orchestras are able to be quite spontaneous or flexible enough to create instant recordings. But many do, at least, have autonomy over what they record. Of the five Grammy nominees for best orchestral performance this year, three were released on the orchestras’ own labels (Seattle, Pittsburgh and San Francisco). Another was recorded during a concert by the National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Center and released as part of the series American Classics on the Naxos label. Only the Nelsons/Boston album was released by a traditional major label — Deutsche Grammophon — but it, too, was recorded live and produced by the orchestra itself.
Recording has always had advantages for orchestras.
“You have to prepare differently and be at the top of your game,” says Alan D. Valentine, president and chief executive of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. “That focus and pressure really helped the orchestra.”
Valentine says Nashville was one of the first orchestras that the founder of the maverick Naxos label, Klaus Heymann, approached about 20 years ago with the idea of a series focusing on unrecorded American music. (Naxos, a budget label, pioneered the now-common practice of having orchestras produce recordings themselves.) The orchestra began to make recordings — first of 20th-century composers such as Howard Hanson and Charles Ives, and then of living ones, such as Joan Tower, Michael Daugherty and Jennifer Higdon. To date, the orchestra has won 13 Grammy awards.
“Our artistic identity,” Valentine says, “is focused on the idea that Nashville is a place where lots of American music is created, recorded, performed and promoted to the world, and why shouldn’t the Nashville Symphony be part of that brand in its own genre?”
He adds: “The commitment to contemporary American music has gotten us a much younger and more diverse audience. . . . We have a few donors who complain. But, for the most part, audiences are on their feet, cheering, often louder when the composers come down.”
The Naxos American Classics series is a prime example of how the recording industry can drive orchestral repertoire. Now encompassing more than 450 releases, it has won 23 Grammys and supported unusual programming at a number of orchestras across the country, including Washington’s Post-Classical Ensemble, the Virginia Symphony, the Albany Symphony, the Buffalo Symphony, the Pacific Symphony in California and the Elgin Symphony in Illinois. Not all of these orchestras stand completely for the new — a perusal of some of their seasons shows a predominance of more conservative fare. But then you’ll see an evening-length oratorio by Richard Danielpour or a symphony by Florence Price — some leavening, at least, of the dead-white-male diet.
Obviously, orchestras aren’t recording solely to win Grammys. But a Grammy win does help an orchestra gain currency and attention with the public. And to the degree that it’s an incentive, it certainly encourages the recording of new music, particularly given that one Grammy category is best contemporary classical composition.
Unfortunately, without the support of a recording, it remains hard to sell tickets for unusual programs. This season, the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic, a small, semiprofessional local orchestra, is presenting programs of music almost entirely written by female composers (Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann are featured on Feb. 15 and 16; Florence Price’s Third Symphony is a showpiece in April). Sales have been no worse than usual, says Ulysses James, the group’s music director, although they haven’t been better. It’s also a lot of extra work to put on music that isn’t often performed — tracking down scores, finding out whether there are usable parts, paying extra for expensive editions. James says he usually pays about $6,000 a season for score rental and parts; this year, it’s $10,000. Next year, he says, he’s going to go more conservative again.
Compare the Seattle Symphony — admittedly a much bigger outfit — with its catalogue of 20 recordings on its own label and, since 2015, Grammy awards for its recordings of John Luther Adams’s “Become Ocean” and the music of French composer Henri Dutilleux.
Thiagarajan is convinced that the audience for less traditional fare is gradually growing. “It takes a few years,” he says, “before that effect sets in.” And a Grammy award, that popularity contest, may actually help.