Robert Hurwitz regularly wears a suit to the kinds of musical events not too many others do. He wore one, though tieless, to an extraordinary concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Saturday, a celebration of Nonesuch Records featuring the likes of John Adams, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Pat Metheny, Laurie Anderson, Kronos Quartet, Dawn Upshaw, k.d. lang, Randy Newman, Stephin Merritt, Chris Thile, Audra McDonald, Brad Mehldau, Mandy Patinkin, Caetano Veloso (I’ll stop there).
But then Hurwitz is a “suit,” as artists pejoratively call their corporate overseers, not that he wears one particularly well, either sartorially or managerially, putting music before business. He has just stepped down from heading Nonesuch for 33 years, and the BAM evening was a rare ode to a record guy. It began with an unusual John Adams understatement.
“Bob is not just a record executive,” Adams told the audience, “he is a key figure in New York’s cultural life.” In fact, Hurwitz has, far and wide, influenced what we listen to, how we listen to it and why we should listen at all. Throughout his career at Nonesuch, he has made the records he wants to own. His philosophy is that if the music matters to him, it just might matter to others. In millions of cases, that has proved true.
I have known Bob for a long time, so I can’t pretend to be objective. In my freelance days in the 1990s, I wrote booklet notes for Nonesuch and developed lifelong friendships with some of his staff. I’ve disagreed with Bob endlessly (who hasn’t?) about what should be recorded and how, and on occasion he’s proved me spectacularly wrong.
Along with notable performances Saturday, one not necessarily leading to another but tied together by Bob’s taste, were the premieres of short piano pieces by Adams, Glass, Reich, Mehldau, Anderson, Newman, Nico Muhly, Louis Andriessen, Donnacha Dennehy and Timo Andres intended for the technical range of Hurwitz as an amateur pianist.
I’ve never knowingly heard Bob play, but I must have heard him over the din in college. We attended UC Berkeley at the same time. I had a student job in the music department handing out keys to practice-room pianos. The routine was that fellow music majors got the best pianos. I didn’t know Bob, who was a history major but also a serious piano student. As he has reminded me, I tended to give him one of the lousy pianos.
So do I get to take credit for a new repertory of pieces by top composers that now exists because, really, Bob has just been trying to prove himself all these many years?
Hardly. What has distinguished Nonesuch has been Bob’s unshakable assurance that he has tapped into a universal zeitgeist. He hasn’t always been right, but when he has been, the results have been historic.
His most astonishing success was a 1991 recording of a slow, hourlong symphony of “sorrowful songs” for soprano and orchestra written 15 years earlier by an obscure Polish composer. When Bob told me that he was going to record Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 with the soprano Dawn Upshaw, my immediate response was that he had to be kidding, and I think I told him that was the worst I idea I had ever heard.
The song texts are religious writings the composer had found scribbled on the walls of a Polish Gestapo prison, and he had intended it for a heavy, vibrato-laden voice, not the sunny sound of a young, still relatively untried all-American soprano.
I wasn’t alone in my reaction. Upshaw initially resisted, not imagining how she could sing this music. Many years later, Górecki told me when he first heard the recording he found it unlistenable.
Yet the purity of Upshaw’s voice is what made the symphony no longer a national statement but something that could lift lives everywhere. Górecki grew to love it, and so did the world. The elegantly packaged CD sold more than a million copies. Overnight Górecki became a widely acclaimed composer and Upshaw a superstar soprano. For my part, I wouldn’t want to have to imagine a world without this recording.
Then again, it has been surprise after surprise with Nonesuch. Thanks to the label, an ensemble of aging Cuban musicians created an international craze for Cuban music with the Buena Vista Social Club. The label did the same for Bulgarian folk music with Le Mystére des Voix Bulgares, a women’s collective. After that it was African string quartet music from Kronos. Nonesuch jumped on the Piazzolla bandwagon big time, releasing not only the absolutely best recordings of the Argentine composer’s own band, along with violinist Gidon Kremer’s versions, which made many of us finally understand the depth of this music.
If you want to find lasting works by Glass, Reich, Adams and Terry Riley, turn first to Nonesuch. If you want to know where Osvaldo Golijov came from, turn once more to Nonesuch. The BAM concert included a preview of an upcoming release of folk singers collaborating with Kronos, including k.d. lang and Natalie Merchant, both of whom were more moving Saturday than I’ve ever heard them. By the way, the best recordings of Sondheim are on Nonesuch. Ditto Upshaw. Ditto McDonald.
The composers and performers had many stories to tell about Bob’s quirks. Adams called him “the slowest driver on the planet.” He also happens to be the slowest producer. Refusing to be rushed, Bob often delayed releases by months until he could get everything — be it the performance, editing, sound, booklet notes, art, sequencing of tracks — right. Going directly against a seasonal business, he made recordings for posterity.
The new piano works for Bob were expectedly various. You knew the composer of Glass’ sober “Evening Song No. 2” from the first few notes, less so the curiously wistful “For Bob” by Reich. Adams’ mined early 20th century harmonies in his impressive “I Still Play.” It was intensely played on video by Jeremy Denk. Timo Andres was the go-to pianist for many of the others, but Laurie Anderson played her own “Song for Bob,” elusive music over in the blink of the eye.
There were also Andriessen’s hard-hitting “Rimsky or La Monte Young,” Dennehy’s brightly bell-like “Her Wits (About Him)” and Mehldau’s impressionistic “In Dreams, the Piano.” Muhly’s “Move” and Andres’ “Wise Words” were interesting for their use of counterpoint.
Randy Newman wrote Bob a sweet song, “Recessional,” for piano. But Patinkin countered that by singing and reciting two satirically acidic Newman songs — “Political Science” and “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” — with exactly the confined fervor we need to put today’s befuddled world in perspective.
Although he turned Nonesuch over to his longtime second-in-command, David Bither, Hurwitz said he will continue to produce recordings. He is surely the only record producer to whom a great opera has been dedicated, and he will record Adams’ “Doctor Atomic” in London next month with the composer conducting.
In speculation about a successor to Los Angeles Philharmonic CEO Deborah Borda, Hurwitz’s name has come up more than once. He is the same age, 67, as Borda and he is from Los Angeles. He would be to some degree at home. He recorded Adams’ “Naïve and Sentimental Music” with the L.A. Phil, which just performed Adams’ “Nixon in China” (first recorded by Nonesuch). Disney Hall this spring has such Nonesuch-centric offerings as appearances by the Icelandic pop group Sigur Ros (with whom the Kronos has worked extensively), a live performance of Bach trios played by Yo-Yo Ma, Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer (the next major Nonesuch release) and the Bulgarian women, who are still at it.
So at the BAM intermission, I asked Bob whether he would entertain a last act running the L.A. Phil, and he replied adamantly that he no longer intends to work for anybody else. Perhaps he’s worn out the suits that never fully fit, but it might be worth the Herculean effort to try to change his mind.