Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part LVII: Classical Gasp
(February 2007)

"At only 14, Jay Greenberg is being hailed as an extraordinarily gifted composer. He makes his Sony Classical debut with this world-premiere recording."

I read this press release with a mixture of amusement and dread. I certainly don't want to take anything away from Jay Greenberg and his Symphony #5 (did he write Symphony #1 when he was six?). It could be the greatest piece of music since Beethoven's Fifth Symphony for all I know. However, the whole thing underlines what I've known for years: classical music is slowly dying in this country. I fear that by the time the Baby Boomers have left the building, classical music will be relegated to libraries and museums, alongside the old madrigals and other forms of early music.

Like I said, I don't want to pick on Master Greenberg. He's certainly being marketed as a breath of fresh air, a "remarkable beginning," as the advertisement for his SACD says. Sony certainly hopes he builds a following that will last throughout his life. If they had released this recording on LP, I would have run out to buy it just to see what all the fuss was about... but they didn't. In fact, there aren't a lot of new classical recordings coming out on vinyl these days - and that's the problem.

Check out the classical LP sections of the major online and mail-order retailers such as Acoustic Sounds, Elusive Disc, and Music Direct. Reissue, reissue, reissue. 1957 this, and 1961 that. A lot of new classical LP's are being released from performers who have been dead for many years. While many vinylphiles will claim that it's a good thing, since that's when the best classical recordings were made, it certainly confirms my fears that interest in modern classical music is slowly disappearing, at least in the U.S.

It goes far beyond my biased observations concerning the availability of vinyl, however. The emergence of such artists as Jay Greenberg and his equally youthful contemporary, Charlotte Church, as well as such popular acts as Andrea Bocelli and the Three Tenors, proves that classical music has gone Top 40, with gimmicks and novelty acts and sure-fire record sellers. Vanguard artists that were changing the face of classical music twenty years ago, such as Philip Glass, Steve Reich, John Adams and Michael Nyman, have settled comfortably into complacency, and the few bright shining stars such as Kevin Volans and Arvo Part are still unknown to the vast majority of music lovers.

The situation isn't utterly hopeless, of course. I do see a few new classical CD releases these days from such labels as Testament, Reference Recordings, EMI Classics, Virgin Classics, BIS and ECM, among others. Also, SACD, which is still struggling to stay alive as a format, is featuring a lot of classical music in its latest advertising push and, of course, there's always Naxos, which is a godsend for most classical music lovers. Naxos is a CD label that's been around for a few years now, and features CDs from relatively unknown performers and orchestras around the world. Because they don't have to pay huge wages for the performers, they're able to record cheaply and frequently, building an impressive catalog over the years. The best part is that they charge only $8.99 per single CD. During Tower Records' recent liquidation, I made off with close to a hundred Naxos CDs, priced as low as $2 or $3 each.

While Naxos offers a lot of hope for classical music lovers, it also emphasizes why modern classical music is suffering the way it is. A music industry insider explained it to me a few years ago, and it depressed me. Say you want to make a recording of Prokofiev's first two violin concertos using your local symphony orchestra. First, you have to rent a studio for at least a few days, along with union engineers and assorted studio personnel. Then, you have to pay all of those musicians union wages while they're sitting in the studio, whether they're playing or not. Then, because it's a violin concerto, you'll have to hire some well-known hot-shot violinist to help sell the CD, as well as a notable conductor, which may cost you much more than the entire orchestra put together. Then, you have to cough up the cash for all of the manufacturing and distribution costs. Then, you'll wind up selling maybe 500 CD's... if you're lucky.

Of course, that makes no financial sense, especially if you're even thinking about releasing your recording in more than one format. That explains the paucity of recent LP releases, and the plethora of reissues. Can you imagine the response you'd get after pulling off a modern orchestral recording, and then asking the record label, "Hey, should we release this on LP, too?" You'd be laughed out of the studio.

I certainly don't want to sound preachy here, admonishing everyone for not saving classical music as we know it. It's much more complicated than that. I know how hard it is even to get into classical music in the first place. When I was young, all my friends told me I was weird for liking classical music, that it was boring and stuffy and for old people only. When I got older, however, more and more of my friends and family told me that they basically liked classical music, but had no idea how to begin to collect it. I know - it wasn't easy for me. It definitely requires a commitment. I started when I was eighteen or so by purchasing a copy of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, which is sort of the "Stairway to Heaven" of classical music. Then I took it a step further by enrolling in a music appreciation course in college, which was extraordinarily helpful, and I started listening diligently to classical FM stations, writing down all the pieces and composers I liked.

Over the years, I bought a lot of clunkers, maybe more than any other musical genre I enjoy, but the gems I found over the years truly enriched my life. For instance, whenever I feel low, or confused about my place in the world, I listen to Arvo Part's Fratres, followed by Kevin Volans' White Man Sleeps suite and Arnold Schoenberg's Transfigured Night, and the secrets of the universe are magically unfurled. I certainly can't get that from Revolver or Doolittle or Double Nickels on the Dime, as much as I love those recordings. Yet, the funny thing is that two of the three recordings I mentioned were composed within my lifetime, and the third, Transfigured Night, was composed in 1899. So, we're hardly talking about old, stuffy, boring classical pieces played by a bunch of guys wearing powdered wigs.

Still, among all my family and friends, I'm the only one "into" classical music. I certainly play a lot for them, and they all seem to dig it, even my two sons. Once in a while, I hear a casual commitment from one of them to "try" to get into it, too. That's why I try to tell as many people as possible about the current state of the classical music scene. If there's any time to get into it, it's now.

I do get the occasional person who tells me that they did buy the latest Andrea Bocelli or Three Tenors CD, as if that makes them a classical music aficionado. It doesn't. Tell a true opera buff about what a great singer Andrea Bocelli is, and they'll probably go apeshit on you. It's just like telling a John Coltrane fan that Kenny G. is one of the greatest jazz saxophone players ever. There's a reason why the people who buy Bocelli and Kenny G. records are the same people who like Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Celine Dion and the original Broadway soundtrack to Wicked. Becoming knowledgeable about classical music requires a true education, just as it does any other musical genre.

I'm not even going to pretend to be the kind of person who could teach the masses about classical music. I'm just the guy who's saying, "Hey, the sun is setting on this type of music." I'd love to be able to recommend five or ten LPs that will definitely get you into classical music, but that won't happen. Like most musical genres, classical music is fragmented, and people tend to gravitate toward a certain type, as opposed to all of it. There's Baroque, which is ornate and flowery yet structurally simple and accessible (think Bach, Vivaldi and Handel), there's Classical, which is more rigid and structured and pure (think Beethoven and Schubert), and there's Romantic, which is lush and complex (think Tchaikovsky, Debussy and Berlioz). Then there's modern classical, which can be atonal, minimalist. or even evocative of the earlier styles.

However, if I had one chance to knock your socks off and to get you into classical music, I'd probably play one of my favorite LPs, Donald Johanos and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra's 1968 recording of Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances and Vocalise, on the Athena label. One of my audio mentors, writer and erstwhile Listener magazine publisher Art Dudley, once dismissed this as over-the-top audiophile tripe, but I think this recording proves once and for all that classical music is anything but boring and stuffy. This LP is dynamic, exciting, and is probably the finest-sounding LP I own.

Is this the recording that will convert you, too? I don't know. I'm not trying to convince anyone who doesn't like classical music that they should. However, if you're sitting on the fence, I'm talking to you. My kids will have all my classical LPs after I'm gone. Will yours?

Contact the Vinyl Anachronist

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER