Local classical musicians gladly pay to record

Recordings by the late Eugene Ormandy are selling on the European-based Pristine Classical website.
Recordings by the late Eugene Ormandy are selling on the European-based Pristine Classical website.
Posted: May 03, 2012

Long one of Philadelphia's proudest exports, classical music keeps flowing out beyond the city limits - more than ever, in fact, despite reports that this particular corner of the recording industry is dying or dead.

Even longtime Philadelphia Orchestra music director Eugene Ormandy, who is indisputably dead, isn't acting that way, to judge from his presence on the Europe-based Pristine Classical website, which specializes in historical recordings.

"He doesn't sell spectacularly as [Arturo] Toscanini," another great, deceased conductor," said Andrew Rose, founder of Pristine, from its base in rural France, "but with the right material. ..."

In contrast to Ormandy's era, there's now more money to be lost than made in recordings. "One does not record for residual income," said Donald Nally, founder of the new-music choir the Crossing. Yet area musicians expend hundreds of hours and raise anywhere from $18,000 (Nally) to $100,000 (Bach Choir of Bethlehem) to deliver a finished master tape to any given recording company, almost all of which offer downloads as well as physical discs.

For artists, the dividends go well beyond the usual take-home-and-enjoy element of recordings. As formidable as Mimi Stillman's new two-CD set Odyssey, of 11 new flute works by Gerald Levinson and Mason Bates, may seem, the disc - which cost her about $20,000 - landed her a May 18 radio concert on the prestigious Soundcheck show on WNYC-FM.

"When you're responsible for the creation of new work," she says, "you want to launch the pieces so they can enter the canon and have others play them."

The Bach Choir of Bethlehem recently brought out its the hefty St. John Passion, on the Analekta label, for a considerably bigger outlay. Such recordings are essential to maintaining an ongoing presence for an organization that performs mainly in its annual spring festival - May 4 to 6 and 11 to 12 at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. The rewards are huge - "90 radio stations in 30 states, in addition to syndicated, satellite, online and international stations," reports Bridget George, the choir's executive director.

Traditional contracts are still out there, sometimes looking like graduation presents at the Curtis Institute. Recent grads Yuja Wang and Lang Lang (piano), Ray Chen, and Benjamin Schmid (violin) already are recording for major labels - Deutsche Grammophon, Sony, and RCA.

Opera Company of Philadelphia music director Corrado Rovaris just came out with Handel concertos on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi.  Philadelphia Orchestra's music director designate Yannick Nézet-Séguin is now recording for Deutsche Grammophon and expects to bring those engineers to the Kimmel Center. Jasmine Choi, often presented in Philadelphia by Astral Artists, explores lesser-known 19th-century flute repertoire with her second Sony disc, Fantasy.

Because the digital age comes with a lack of overhead, nichier releases can find a place at the table - one reason that Mark Obert-Thorn, Philadelphia's internationally known historic-recording remasterer, has carte blanche with Pristine Classical to work his magic on whatever he wants. His latest: Honegger's Joan of Arc,  conducted by Ormandy in 1952, as both download and CD.

One download holdout is Swarthmore's Ward Marston, the area's other historic-recording guru. His Marston label issues defiantly lavish box sets, such as his four-disc The Complete Vladimir de Pachmann, devoted to the historically important Chopin specialist whose recording career began in 1907. Discs cost as little as 40 cents to make; booklets are his main expense.

Name a funding model and it's there somewhere. Marston used to propose projects on his website and wait for sufficient interest to accumulate before going forward with a 1,000-set limited run. Now, foundations have come forward; the de Pachmann set was funded in full.

The growing St. Paul-based Innova label is becoming new-music central, with a growing Philadelphia presence that includes Stillman and two choruses, the Crossing and Mendelssohn Club, because their repertoire is contemporary. After the Innova staff approves a project, the arrangement is BYO master tape. Innova covers manufacturing and distribution (the large Naxos America network). Royalties all go to the artists.

But how to raise the money? An increasingly popular mechanism is Kickstarter, which composer Missy Mazzoli (Lansdale's contribution to the Brooklyn arts scene) used to fund the recording of her opera Song From the Uproar. The website gives a project a cyberbooth with a video explaining the project, and a limited time frame for raising the money. Mazzoli got $7,968 from 103 backers in 10 days.

Artists invariably say the recording process is an invaluable discipline, requiring them to be in top shape. Even when budgets are tight, Stillman springs for the best sound engineers she can find. In fact, quality is so crucial that composer Andrea Clearfield has walked away from recording opportunities when she felt the performers weren't up to the challenge.

Thus, the quality of recent discs is consistently high. The Mendelssohn Club has never sounded better than on its new Metamorphosis disc with works by Philadelphia composers Clearfield, Jennifer Higdon, and James Primosch.

Astral Artists' Jasper Quartet is maybe the best of the bunch, with some of the tightest, smartest Beethoven ( Op. 59, No. 3) around on its new disc for Sono Luminus. And Ormandy? Pristine and Obert-Thorn champion his pre-stereo 1950s recordings, when his art was more vital and his taste more adventurous - important chapters in Philadelphia music history.


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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