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Classic Americana
A "budget" label uncovers American treasures
by Joseph Horowitz

The Nashville Symphony's recording of Charles Ives's Second Symphony, conducted by Kenneth Schermerhorn, has sold some 22,000 copies worldwide. A recording of orchestral music by Samuel Barber, with Marin Alsop conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, has sold more than 43,000 copies. A recording of the violin concertos of Walter Piston, with James Buswell and an orchestra in Kiev, has sold 27,000 copies. These are three of the releases comprising "American Classics," an ongoing project of the world's best-selling classical music label: Naxos.

Four observations:

  1. With a catalogue of 80 releases from George Antheil (Ballet mechanique, symphonies, etc.) to Meredith Willson (two symphonies by the composer of The Music Man), and more than 100 projected titles to come, American Classics is the most ambitious documentation in sound of American classical music ever undertaken.
  2. Exploring unsuspected and unfamiliar crannies of the American symphonic repertoire, the Naxos recordings furnish a trove of fresh programming ideas.
  3. At a troubled time for the commercial recording industry, when some American orchestras would be satisfied with sales of 5,000 units per CD title, it remains possible to make important commercial recordings of ambitious repertoire that sell in quantity--American Classics orchestral titles average 20,000 per recording at $7.99 per disc.
  4. With few exceptions, the participating orchestras are based in the United Kingdom, Ireland, New Zealand, Slovakia, or the former Soviet Union.

In short: American Classics challenges the American symphonic community to take notice and take part.

The magnitude of the Naxos project--which I have observed firsthand as an advisor on artists and repertoire since early this year--bears stressing. Naturally, the brand names--Barber, Bernstein, Copland--are all there. So is an abundance of light-classical fare: Ferde Grofe (two CDs), Victor Herbert (three), John Philip Sousa (five), Morton Gould, Robert Russell Bennett. But marketing considerations are clearly not the driving impetus. John Cage (two volumes of prepared-piano music) is meaningfully represented. Elliott Carter (Symphony No.1, Piano Concerto) is about to be. The series is astonishing for its coverage of notable pre-Copland fare, including Edward MacDowell (seven CDs), Arthur Foote (three), and Charles Tomlinson Griffes (three).

Some American Classics CDs are landmark recordings. Nowhere else, for instance, can you find Louis Moreau Gottschalk's irresistible Night in the Tropics (1859) in something like its original version, with Cuban percussion and supplemental brass in a restoration by Richard Rosenberg, who leads his Hot Springs Music Festival Orchestra. (There also exists another reconstruction, by Gunther Schuller.) This is mandatory American repertoire whose historical significance is, if anything, exceeded by its roof-rattling impact.

And only American Classics has offered a program of symphonic works by Gottschalk's New York contemporary William Henry Fry, heretofore known for his indignant fulminations (typically fixated on his own neglect) as the first full-time music critic for an American newspaper (the Herald). Fry's prose reveals an artistic temperament whose bombast is leavened by sincere enthusiasm, and whose naïveté is complicated by a willful eccentricity that titillates and charms. Fry the composer proves equally disarming. Orchestras should sample his Santa Claus Symphony (1853), a programmatic extravaganza (including a perilous snow storm, Santa's sleigh, and the "Joy of children on discovering their toys") that excited delight and consternation when introduced by Louis Jullien at his "Monster Concerts for the Masses" (See Reprise in SYMPHONY, November-December 2000).

Another Naxos discovery is George Templeton Strong, a musical ally and bosom friend of the once-most-famous of American composers, Edward MacDowell. MacDowell's star has set--his music sounds corny today. Strong's Die Nacht (1913) is more bravely influenced by Liszt and Wagner; its breadth of stride is authentic. Here is another composer once admired, since forgotten, who deserves a second chance.

So does Paul Creston who, of all the most-performed American symphonists of the 1940s and '50s, has fallen furthest. A Naxos CD of his first three symphonies renews acquaintance with a self-made Italian American who doesn't fit any niche. Creston is not Germanic, like MacDowell or Strong; nor Francophile, like Copland and company; nor a maverick, like Cowell or Varese. His Symphony No.2 (1944) remains a fresh, unpretentiously original experience, a sunny American La valse in two self-generating movements whose fluidly shifting rhythms and shapes mate with lush harmonies and tunes.

The Fry and Gottschalk CDs are all selling vigorously--in five figures. The orchestras here are Scottish, Russian, and Ukrainian. Theodore Kuchar's National Symphony Orchestra of the Ukraine has even recorded such patriotic Americana as Morton Gould's American Ballads, with its witty dissections of "The Star Spangled-Banner" and "America the Beautiful." But American orchestras in the American Classics catalogue are few and far between. Nashville, with Schermerhorn, leads with six projects: the Ives, discs of Howard Hanson and George Whitefield Chadwick, and pending discs of Amy Beach, Carter, and Bernstein (West Side Story). The Buffalo Philharmonic, under JoAnn Falletta, has recorded music by Griffes and Frederick Converse. The Florida Philharmonic has recorded a Bernstein CD--but, with the departure of James Judd, no further Naxos projects are in preparation. The Nashville Chamber Orchestra has recorded a Copland program. And there is talk of American Classics absorbing parts of the Seattle Symphony's extensive catalogue of Americana, previously issued on Delos. Currently American orchestras account for only 20 per cent of the extant or pending symphonic CDs in the series.

Putting It Together

Needless to say, American orchestras are more expensive to record than the non-American ensembles Naxos currently favors. Klaus Heymann, Naxos's founder and presiding mastermind, says his company records elsewhere simply because it costs less. The label itself doesn't bear this cost; it pays modest fees to orchestras, and there are no royalties. Participating orchestras must obtain additional sponsorship--and differences between contract rules governing session pay and breaks mean that U.S. orchestras must raise more than orchestras abroad. Heymann notes that the American orchestras represented in the American Classics series have been "willing to program the repertoire we wanted to record" on their seasons, to make the most of their session time. Naxos, meanwhile, picks up the production cost of recording and superintends packaging, distribution, and promotion. For orchestras like Nashville and Buffalo, the payoff can be compelling.

Nashville's Electronic Media Guarantee (EMG) of $1,000 per musician per year partly covers the cost of engaging the players, but this was not in place when the orchestra began its Naxos association. Executive Director Alan Valentine explains: "The Naxos affiliation came our way at an opportune time. We were in the middle of an endowment campaign. Our objectives included adding sixteen full-time players to our core complement, touring to Carnegie Hall, and making recordings in order to stretch the orchestra's capacity. It all came true: We raised the $20 million; we added the players; and the Naxos CDs have received astonishing attention, both nationally and internationally. I have a two-inch thick file of reviews. One German review of our Ives CD begins: 'It is unlikely that a Middle European music lover would know about the Nashville Symphony. That seems likely to change, however.' "

Nashville usually logs two subscription performances of its Naxos repertoire before retiring to the studio. The orchestra must work at peak efficiency. And its repertoire is stretched. Valentine says: "Some people in the industry have an old-fashioned prejudice against Naxos as an 'off-price label.' Personally, I think this is the most important recording project that's happened in my lifetime. And it's been a revelation for our audiences. The Amy Beach Piano Concerto, which we did this season with Alan Feinberg, brought the house down. Even when we did Ives's Robert Browning Overture some people loved it and others hated it. The best part is that they were talking about it and about the courage it took for us to do it. We intend to do two Naxos CDs per season. We have donors who believe in what we're doing. We've been successful in obtaining grants for recording American music. And, because our musicians were quick to see the benefits, we now have our EMG."

In an ingenious strategy for defraying media outlays, the Buffalo Philharmonic elected to locally market its first Naxos project, a Frederick Converse CD, before it went on sale commercially under the terms of a six-month "exclusionary clause." The orchestra purchased 2,000 copies at minimal cost and sold them at Naxos's list price. The Philharmonic's more recent Griffes CD includes a late masterpiece of this early-deceased composer, arguably the finest of American Romantics: the searing Three Poems of Fiona McLeod for soprano and orchestra. The repertoire for both recordings was chosen by Music Director JoAnn Falletta.

"JoAnn and I were looking for a vehicle that could get the orchestra recording again and also be used in conjunction with broadcasts and TV to raise our overall profile not only locally but nationally and internationally," comments Executive Director Larry Ribits. Buffalo has been able to generate a sufficient media revenue stream to break even on its total media expenses (not counting an EMG paying $1,600 per player). Ribits believes "if American orchestras are really going to have a media presence, we're going to have to change the way we think. The economics of recording are much different than even fifteen or twenty years ago."

It will come as no surprise that Heymann agrees with Ribits. Because no Naxos recording projects are possible without funding on the orchestra's part, "orchestras should think carefully about what they want to achieve," Heymann says. "If an orchestra wants to make a statement with its recordings, it shouldn't focus on standard repertoire for which there is no market. Twentieth and twenty-first century repertoire attracts the most critical attention and the strongest sales." If an American orchestra "wants to record repertoire we need," he says, Naxos's relationships with Buffalo and Nashville might serve as models, particularly if international distribution and press coverage are important goals.

At a recent "Dvorak in America" festival presented by the Pacific Symphony, the orchestra for the first time played works by George Chadwick--a composer enormously popular with Boston Symphony audiences before 1920. Raymond Kobler, the concertmaster, found himself shaking his head at the caliber of Chadwick's Jubilee (1895). Though Kobler has also served as concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony, and associate concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra, he had never before performed a note of Chadwick. The glowing coda to Jubilee--tuneful music that sticks in the ear for good-beautifully reminded him of what Hollywood composers would write, fully half a century later, to accompany cowboys riding into the sunset. "I wish that the entire American Classics project could be taken over by American orchestras, that every American orchestra that's capable of making a first-class disc could contribute," says Alan Valentine. "Our whole industry depends on our ability to create and sustain a uniquely American musical heritage." What lucky orchestra will get to record Jubilee for American Classics? I hope that it's American.

Joseph Horowitz, a frequent contributor to SYMPHONY, serves as an advisor to American Classics and creates music festivals for the New Jersey Symphony, Pacific Symphony, and other American orchestras.

This article first appeared in the September/October 2002 edition of Symphony and was republished with the permission of Joseph Horowitz and Melinda Whiting, editor in chief of Symphony, the Magazine of the American Symphony Orchestra League.


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