Classical Grammys: Still Cause For Concern?

Posted: February 01, 1987

During last year's Grammy Award event, recordings by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra - generally recognized as a good but not first-rank ensemble - so completely monopolized the list of classical-music nominees, and then won so many of the awards, that a number of observers suspected something was amiss.

They were right.

This year's Grammy Awards, which are administered by the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS), will be announced Feb. 24. Since last year, there has been much public debate about Atlanta's success in the classical Grammy voting process. But there's been little done to reform the

procedure.

The situation is of concern to Philadelphians because this year their orchestra is competing for awards in three of the classical categories. The ensemble's success, of course, will be determined by that controversial voting process.

True, the evidence of a problem may be less clear than last year - only two Atlanta recordings are eligible this year for Grammys; both have been nominated. Yet questions linger: If the voting process has been distorted in the past, what will prevent it from happening again and tainting, even more seriously, the prestige of the classical awards?

Some background first. More than a year ago, NARAS' Atlanta chapter had conducted an aggressive and successful recruitment campaign of Atlanta Symphony Orchestra players and chorus members.

The chapter even offered reduced-cost (a prorated $10) three-month memberships - a period just long enough so that the new inductees could vote for the Grammy nominations and then cast ballots for the final awards. The chapter's size grew from 265 to 430 members.

While individual members' votes were kept secret, many in the music business surmised a connection between those doings in Atlanta and the subsequent 12 nominations that the city's orchestra received for the Grammys. The players and singers, it was said, seemed to be voting for themselves.

There was widespread concern among classical musicians and record industry officials, not simply about apparent bloc voting but about how to stop it.

The award results suggested that, unlike the pop categories, classical prizes could be seriously affected by very few votes.

More important, what the Atlanta chapter of NARAS had done, under the initiative of its then membership chairman, Bob Richardson, may have seemed to some observers as unfair but it was, in fact, perfectly legal under NARAS guidelines; there were no rules against short-term memberships or against voting for one's own work.

Said Richardson in response to the criticism: "There's nothing wrong with the system, and I really object to people making more out of it than it is. There are poor losers everywhere."

Others saw it differently.

Joseph Dash, senior vice president and general manager for CBS Masterworks, wrote a strong letter of complaint to Michael Greene, then NARAS president. ''What is alleged about the Atlantans may be legalistically correct," he stated. "But the spirit of the Grammy nominations and awards are perverted by such actions. . . . Lo and behold, we will have awards presented on the basis of buying power, rather than quality and artistry."

Andrew Kazdin, 20-year NARAS member and a widely respected producer of classical albums, put it more succinctly: "Pretty soon it will be not who has the best records, but who has the most members."

After Atlanta walked away with several Grammys last year, NARAS officials agreed that there had been a problem and promised appropriate action.

A classical committee of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) was formed, with Dash as its chairman. At the top of the group's agenda was a list of recommendations on solving the classical Grammy dilemma, and in late April, it submitted these suggestions to the NARAS board:

* Orchestras and other groups of more than 25 members should be limited to only one vote.

* A specially elected group, not the general membership, should choose the final nominations.

* And voting should only be permitted after one full year in NARAS.

Dash, who had become the most outspoken and most active lobbyist on the issue, felt the response by NARAS was less than encouraging. In November, he wrote in an editorial in Billboard magazine: "NARAS has . . . decided to do, effectively, nothing. We have received first vague promises of cooperation, then months of silence, and finally a self-fulfilling pronouncement that there was no time to remedy the situation before this year's awards.

"We emphatically disagree. . . . NARAS - like other award-giving organizations - has faced bloc-voting problems in the past. . . . We can't wait another year, or two, or three. Our worst nightmares are being realized right now. The classical Grammys are becoming a bad joke."

Since that article came out, the new list of Grammy nominees has been announced. The Philadelphia Orchestra is one of several groups up for a number of awards. Its work has been nominated in the category of best orchestral recording (for its version of Respighi's Pines of Rome, Fountains of Rome and Roman Festivals, under the baton of Riccardo Muti); for best choral performance (for Berlioz's Romeo et Juliette), and for best engineered recording (the Respighi disc, again).

The Atlantans' presence among the nominees is less obvious than it was last year, but not necessarily less troubling. The orchestra's two recordings nominated - for awards in three categories - are a hodge-podge of choral music, some of it released in previous years, and a Beethoven Ninth that has met with no better than mixed reviews.

Says Atlanta Journal-Constitution music critic Derrick Henry, if the Beethoven wins an award "we would know once and for all that quality has nothing to do" with the classical Grammys.

Whether or not the orchestra's presence on this year's ballot means the Atlanta players have been involved in voting for themselves is not known,

because it is NARAS policy not to reveal the votes of its members.

So far, NARAS's only effort at reform has been the prohibition of the prorated, short-term memberships.

Richardson - who is no longer membership chairman for the Atlanta chapter, but is a national trustee of NARAS - remains hurt and upset about the complaints, and believes that the Grammy system is sound. "How in the world can you justify anything fairer than one member, one vote?" he insists. ''That's the American way, that's the fairest way. The vote is secret and no one is putting pressure on anyone to vote one way."

The NARAS trustees, he says, thought long and hard after last year's event about how to reform the voting procedures, and concluded the present structure should remain in place. "I don't think there should be bloc voting, but I still think every member has the right to vote his own way," he says.

"The ballots are sent to the house of each member, who votes in privacy without any pressure from anyone. If that man from CBS (Dash) can come up with something better, I'll go along with it. But I don't think anyone has yet."

Even those who disagree with Richardson in thinking there was something wrong with what apparently happened last year in Atlanta, agree that the corrections suggested thus far are not ideal.

About the idea of limiting orchestras to one vote, for instance, Kazdin, among others, says, "the horn player will say this is prejudicial. 'Why are you penalizing me for being in a symphony orchestra?' " And about delaying voting for one year: "That will stop the hideousness of last year - but not the problem, in the end."

Responds Dash: "The point is not whose idea is the best, but that the problem be solved. Something can always be done. Reform sometimes takes several steps. The issue," he concludes, "is the desire to solve the problem. That's what we've been about in terms of our lobbying, and now we're just hoping for some results."

He is, Dash says, more optimistic than he was when the Billboard editorial was written. "Part of the problem . . . has been due to the fact that NARAS does not have a president at the moment."

But he believes the organization is now in the process of choosing "a statesman-like individual," and though he did not say who that would be, he is convinced the person will make the classical Grammy issue "a top priority item."

"I believe attempts will be made to cure the problem, and I'm now relying on the promise of the NARAS board to do something about this and do it right."

As a caution, however, Dash adds the following: "I will tell you this: I'm not going to sit back complacently and be Pollyannaish about the whole affair if we don't see some real changes soon."

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