"It's a challenge and a half," said Ramone, 54, last week after a take of Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 5 at the former Collingswood Theatre, now a photography studio. "In other types of music, you're not dealing with a repertoire that's so steeped in history. I feel kind of like, my God, am I doing this, and will I do right? It's like starting all over."
Actually, it is like starting all over for Ramone, since his entree into the music world was through classical music. He took up the violin at the age of 3, and at 10 played a command performance for the king and queen of England. As a teenager, he studied violin at the Juilliard School while attending regular high school.
But Ramone was a curious teenager, and it wasn't long before he wired his
violin electrically and started to discover that an entire world of sounds existed outside of classical music. In 1961, he opened up his own independent record studio, A&R Recording, and went on to win 7 Grammy Awards, 15 Grammy nominations and an Emmy.
Ramone put down his violin, more or less for good, in his mid-20s. "I had too much on my plate," he says. "Because I was not practicing six or seven hours a day, which is what it takes, I thought, stop."
He still has his violin, and takes it out of the case once in a while.
Andre Previn, his friend and neighbor from Westchester County, New York, teases him about picking the violin up again to play chamber music, to which Ramone says: "Give me 10 months and six hours a day, and maybe."
It was through Previn that Ramone got hooked up with the Curtis orchestra. Previn recently has conducted the orchestra often, and told Ramone how wonderful he thought the group was.
"Andre said to me, 'Listen, this is one of the top five in the world,' and I said, 'I wonder if I could get a label interested in it.' "
Previn and Ramone had just finished recording a crossover project, Sure Thing (The Jerome Kern Songbook), with basically classical soprano Sylvia McNair. Ramone approached EMI, and says selling them on the idea of recording a school orchestra was one of the project's biggest challenges.
"To get it on, to get it past the door, to get people to accept the fact that we were going for a commercial market - that was tough," recalled Ramone, who said the project has been in the works for about 10 months.
EMI already was recording the Philadelphia Orchestra at the old Collingswood Theatre in Camden County this month, bringing in elaborate recording equipment, so the record company decided to piggyback the Curtis project - the conservatory's first-ever recording on a big label.
While at this point in his career Ramone has no doubt what a pop-record producer does, he says he is still figuring out the fine points of the classical world:
"Pop and classical are 180 degrees away from each other. A pop producer has a tremendous amount to say about the arrangement, orchestration style, the way it is approached, the accompaniment, the singer, the choice of the piece. With someone like Previn, what's there to do other than to make sure he captures the dynamics the way he hears them? It's like an arrangement between a nurse and doctor. You talk the same language, and you say very little."
The way Ramone explains it, in addition to supervising the sound of the recording - which includes the Vaughan Williams symphony and his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, as well as the recording premier of Previn's Reflections - he has less tangible but no less important duties.
"I feel a lot of people get ignored when they make records, and I'm just the opposite," he says. "I feel the little hellos and talking to people is the key to whether you understand how intense it is for them. The English horn player - is she OK, or does she need another take? I've sat in that chair, I know exactly how hard it is, and if someone starts barking from the control room, you want to kill them."
Indeed, an air of tranquillity surrounds Ramone. Dressed in black, with shoulder-length gray hair, he chats easily at the recording session Thursday with the 81 members of the orchestra, ages 13 to 26.
"I'd love to have a real relationship with the orchestra, where they trust you," he says. "I'd love to just spend a whole week with them hanging out, and then go into the studio to record."
Previn, too, has a remarkably laid-back approach in the normally emotionally charged milieu of the recording session. When a double bass player enters early, he says, "You win." When the cellos are too loud, he tells them gently, saying, "No, I don't think so."
When the students please him, Previn says: "Very nice. Very nice, indeed."
The students seem to love him. Lelie Resnick, a 22-year-old oboe student
from Carbondale, Ill., has many exposed solos on the album, in the third movement of the Vaughan Williams symphony and Previn's new work, where hers is the first sound.
After trying for the notes a couple of times, she stops, and explains that moisture has collected in her English horn. Previn presses the baton to his chin, and waits patiently for her to clean out the instrument. After about the fifth try, she plays a take that everyone is happy with.
"I try not to think of anyone else," she said at break. Sure, there's
pressure, but Previn is "so calm about everything, I don't get too nervous."
Previn and Ramone welcome the students into a cramped recording booth to listen to the playback along with EMI engineers. They seem amazed by the power Ramone exercises over the sound by turning the knobs to adjust the balance.
In preparation for the Curtis project, Ramone says he listened to some other recordings of the works, but didn't want to "overlisten." He's not sure what the Phil Ramone influence on the end-product will be, but hopes it will capture the energy and enthusiasm of the Curtis students.
"I don't know if you can break new ground in classical music other than to make something better than it's been," Ramone says, "and capture performances of people who are going to be in five or 10 years the people we're going to mention in our first breath like, Oh, have you heard so and so?"
As he ends the nine or so hours of recording for the project, he looks forward to the post-recording process where balances are decided and editing and patching are done. He has extensive experience as an engineer, and this is likely where his biggest contribution will be.
Still, the prospect of molding classical music for the first time makes him slightly apprehensive:
"I feel as unprepared in a way as I did when I was a kid about having to know all the concertos and all the sonatas I had to play. It's like when someone said suddenly, 'It says here you can play seven concertos. Can you play the Bruch G minor (Concerto)?' And I go, right. I have to really put my head together all over again."