Gramophone Awards: Where classical is the star

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On Feb. 21 at Staples Center, the 43rd Grammy Awards will present three hours of festive congratulations featuring what the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences considers the brightest and best of pop music. And once again, the wallflowers at this annual concert cum industry pep rally will be from classical music.

The classical awards, along with jazz, folk and world music, will be presented in an earlier ceremony with only the briefest of moments making it to the broadcast. Talk of a separate-but-equal televised show, rife at the academy in the early 1990s, has evaporated, leaving the classical side of the business resigned to a token presence on the prime-time show and dreaming of greater glory.

What if, for example, the classical awards did have its own Big Night, with the honorees present and many of them performing? Imagine Golden Age legend Carlo Bergonzi and soprano Angela Gheorghiu singing the Drinking Song from "La Traviata" with Antonio Pappano conducting the English Chamber Orchestra. Or period-instrument wonder Andrew Manze and harpsichordist Richard Egarr dazzling with a Pandolfi violin sonata. Or Leif Ove Andsnes playing a bit of a Haydn piano concerto, Barbara Bonney singing Grieg accompanied by Pappano at the piano, and Simon Rattle accepting multiple awards.

Such a show, hosted by British actress Honor Blackman, did take place last October. But you had to be in London, at Royal Festival Hall, for the Gramophone Awards 2000.

Launched in 1923, the monthly Gramophone, with a worldwide circulation of 80,000, is the Bentley of classical music magazines: traditionally oriented and expensive -- $200 for a basic annual subscription in the U.S., though frequently discounted -- but long on prestige and performance.

"The world's best classical music reviews," it boasts on the cover, and in an era of booming competition, that is still probably true, at least for recordings.

Similar prestige accrues to its awards, begun in 1977, largely because they are based on the foundation of those reviews. Unlike the Grammys, which are voted on directly by the 12,000 eligible academy members, most of whom work on the pop side of the musical equation, Gramophone Awards are chosen by critics who live, eat and breathe classical music.

Not surprisingly, such expertise breeds influence.

"Gramophone has been around for so long and is so respected," says Matthew Owen, national sales manager for Harmonia Mundi USA, "ultimately it is the classical award, especially worldwide."

The selection process for the Gramophone Awards starts on the desk of editor James Jolly, who says his magazine receives 3,500 to 4,000 discs to review each year. The Gramophone eligibility period runs from June 1 to May 31. Awards are given in 17 categories, much like Grammy's 11 classical divisions, although Gramophone allots period music its own niches.

Also like the Grammys, the Gramophone categories are constantly evolving. "We had a film music award for a few years," Jolly says, "and we have introduced the recital award because so much of the opera production now seems to go into collections rather than whole operas. A DVD award is highly likely next year -- opera looks great on DVD.

"I draw up an enormous list, and I try to take a generous view," Jolly says. "That is, if a recording received a bad review in Gramophone but a good review somewhere else, in it goes. I give our [editors] the list, and that usually adds a few more prospective recordings. That huge list then goes out to our specialist reviewers, who narrow it down to six in each category."

All the reviewers then vote in as many categories as they choose to, which means there are different totals for each. With the idea that opting to vote in a particular category reflects interest, the winner of the category with the most total votes is also named record of the year; in 2000 it was Simon Rattle's account of Mahler's Symphony No. 10 (in Deryck Cooke's performing version) with the Berlin Philharmonic.

"What we are looking for is a combination of things," Jolly says. "Excellence, of course, and a lot of imagination, and originality in choice of repertory or interpretation, shedding light on an old favorite or bringing something new to us. The Mahler 10th, for example, is sort of semi-detached from the core repertory."

For the Grammys, the process begins at the corporate and grass-roots levels, as record companies or academy members enter their favorite projects. These entries are screened by specialists, but only to ensure that they are indeed eligible and in the appropriate category.

Then ballots go out to the entire voting membership, which culls these entries down to five nominees. A second ballot produces the winners, which are not announced until the ceremony.

In the case of the classical awards, another step comes in between the first and second ballots. For the classical awards, the first ballot brings the entries down to a list of 10, which a specialist committee -- mostly critics -- pares to the final five. This panel can also retrieve a recording that did not make the field of 10 if it believes there has been a significant omission by the popular vote.

This intermediary screening committee was added to the process in 1989 and has done much to revive the credibility of the classical Grammys. Respect for the awards plummeted in the 1980s, when the same famous artists won over and over -- Georg Solti, all-time Grammy leader with 30 awards, took at least one every year from 1974 to 1983. And midway through the decade, the great Atlanta imbroglio of 1985 called attention to the long-simmering issue of bloc voting.

Ironically, the Atlanta situation arose out of efforts to reinvigorate that city's academy chapter, which offered steeply discounted, short-term memberships that just happened to cover the Grammy balloting period. Members of the Atlanta Symphony and its chorus, both then under the baton of Robert Shaw, snapped them up. They applied their new voting power to their own recordings, dominating the nominations and winning four Grammys where they had previously won none.

The outcry was loud and immediate, and the following year the academy banned discounted memberships, but bloc voting remains an issue. Small and independent labels have long believed that they consistently lose out to the majors, which purchase memberships for their employees. The academy has instituted accounting safeguards that require a recording to receive at least as many votes from sources not affiliated with its production as from aligned sources to be nominated.

The results of the British and U.S. processes can dovetail despite the different approaches. Gramophone's Rattle/Berlin Mahler record of the year, with its high name recognition factor and EMI's big-label clout behind it, has a good chance in Grammy's best classical album and best orchestral categories. There are numerous other carry-overs: American orchestras, for example, have been shut out on both sides of the Atlantic this year; names like the Emerson String Quartet, Marc-André Hamelin and Murray Perahia are repeats at least among the nominees.

But the disagreements also can be striking. Gramophone's winner in the contemporary music category, a recording of recent orchestral work from American grand master Elliott Carter, did not even make Grammy's short list, although the Clarinet Concerto on that disc is the vehicle for a nomination for Michael Collins in Grammy's best solo with orchestra division. Lacking much visibility for either performers or material, the album of choral music by Lili Boulanger that won a Gramophone award is also missing from the corresponding Grammy slate, which seems determined to honor the big Bach year, giving four of its five nominations to works by the Baroque master.

At some level, there is a trade-show aspect to both the Gramophone and Grammy awards. The Gramophones were at one time nominated by the record companies, as the Grammys still are.

"The Gramophone Awards were started very much at the suggestion of the recording industry," Jolly says, "as a focus for their activity, and probably to sell a few records. We used to ask the companies to nominate recordings, but we got so much rubbish that we decided we would do this ourselves."

Both awards do, in fact, sell records. In Jolly's words, "It is kind of inevitable that any awards will have some commercial impact."

Just how big an impact that is depends on many factors, including which award is won. Gramophone's record of the year is by far the heaviest hitter in sales effect, according to numerous sources. Gramophone subscribers -- about 20,000 in North America -- buy on average 80 CDs a year, Jolly says, and winning record of the year can triple or even quintuple sales.

Other categories, in both the Grammys and the Gramophone contests, may boost sales 20% to 25%, but since any of these gains are on top of about a 5,000-unit base -- if the album is lucky -- the numbers are hardly staggering in dollar terms.

"Whenever you win an award, it's great. It helps sell the record and that's always good," says Steve Wehmhoff, classical manager for Koch International, whose roster of distributed labels issues about 500 classical recordings a year. "It would be nice if you could get more presence on the [Grammy] broadcast. Gramophone, however, goes right out to our target market. When our Chandos recording of Boulanger's choral works won the Gramophone choral award, we got a very good bump in sales."

"The awards do have a direct effect on sales," confirms Harmonia Mundi's Owen, who also gives Gramophone the edge in marketing impact.

And the impact on artists? By the time an award sales bump passes into royalties, it may not be felt at all. Classical artists seldom depend on record sales for much of their income. A published report in 1994 noted that the Chicago Symphony's vast discography had garnered 46 Grammys by then, thanks in large measure to its partnerships with Grammy perennials Solti and Pierre Boulez. Yet royalty income was $100,000 to $300,000 annually, less than 1% of the orchestra's budget.

For individual artists, the proportions are probably similar, and a 25% increase in funds that represent only 1% of your total income is hardly noticeable.

"I hate to say it, but I don't think they translate into a lot of record sales," says pianist Emmanuel Ax, who has taken home prizes from both competitions.

Prestige, of course, is another issue. It may not be directly spendable, but you can be sure that awards are immediately listed in biographies, résumés, institutional histories, grant applications, and publicity and promotional materials. Solti was famously proud of his Grammy collection, and Wanda Toscanini Horowitz, wife of Vladimir Horowitz, was quoted as saying that of all her husband's accomplishments, he was particularly proud of having won more Grammys than Henry Mancini.

"It's a nice thing to get, an unexpected present," Ax concedes. "Grammy is more visible, while Gramophone is more hard-core. To some degree, there is a slight tinge of nationalism to those awards, which is only natural, I suppose.

"But all awards and competitions may be out of place in the artistic world. What happens with awards, things are singled out as very good -- and they usually are -- but then other equally fine things are made to seem not very good because they did not win or even get nominated. I would almost prefer they didn't do it at all. It seems to be a disservice to the art."

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