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Grammy, what big ears you have

Two years ago, I wrote an article on how irrelevant the Grammy Awards are to classical music (you could think of it as a companion piece to the article I did this past weekend on classical music and the Billboard charts). So it is no surprise that the winners of the Grammy Awards in classical music on Sunday night seem such a poor reflection of the field at large.

The awards seem, as usual, to be based as much on name recognition as on merit, meaning that they tend to go to people who have won before: Michael Tilson Thomas, whose Mahler 8th won three awards, including Best Classical Album); the guitarist Sharon Isbin, who took a second Grammy with Journey to the New World, presumably in part because the guitar is a popular instrument and in part because she worked with Joan Baez and Mark O'Connor; Renée Fleming, the soprano, who won Best Classical Vocal Performance with Verismo, an ambitious album but not the best showcase of her particular skills; and perennial favorites like the Emerson Quartet, always a safe highbrow bet, with Intimate Letters and Yo-Yo Ma, the universally beloved and frequently be-Grammied cellist, who added to his collection with a Best Classical Crossover award for Songs of Joy and Peace. Another frequent Grammy winner, James Levine, moved out of the opera category with a Grammy for Best Orchestral Performance for Daphnis and Chloe. And while I was delighted that David Lang won his first Grammy for The Little Match Girl Passion, I did wonder if the fact that the piece won the Pulitzer Prize, and therefore a certain official sanction, had something to do with the voters' getting behind it.
(read more after the jump)

A couple of area groups came up empty-handed. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was nominated for (and had, I thought, a good shot at winning with) Bernstein's Mass; Steven Epstein, its producer, did win Classical Producer of the Year for this and other recordings (including Songs of Joy and Peace); and Marin Alsop, the BSO's music director, did conduct the winner of the Best Classical Contemporary Composition award, Jennifer Higdon's Percussion Concerto with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. It was a feather in the cap of the Wolf Trap Opera to be nominated for its recording of John Musto's Volpone, which was not only the company's own recording but its first new commission; but both Volpone and the Mariinsky's wonderful The Nose were passed over, in the Best Opera Recording category, in favor of Billy Budd with Daniel Harding conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and Ian Bostridge (another previous Grammy winner) as Captain Vere.

In my 2008 article, I wrote that the Grammy nominations were starting to reflect the wealth of smaller record labels that were springing up: the "long-tail," niche-market aspect of the classical music field. This is still true: there were a lot of in-house labels nominated this year (Mariinsky, BSO Classics, SFS Media, Wolf Trap Recordings, or BMOP/Sound, the label of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, which was up for an excellent recording, Derek Bermel's Voices); and a sprinkling of indie labels like Cedille Records (Oppens plays Carter), Avie Records, Gimell, Bridge Records (for part of its ongoing edition of the complete works of the composer George Crumb edition), and Onyx Classics (Susan Graham's "Un Frisson Français"). But the long-tail theory hypothesizes that in today's market a lot of people gravitate toward a few big names, and only a few gravitate toward the less-known ones; and in Grammy voting, that translates to another year of same ol', same ol'.

Some of my personal favorites among the nominees: Bernstein's Mass, Voices, The Nose, Oppens Plays Carter, Volpone, and The Little Match Girl Passion. What were yours?

By Anne Midgette  |  January 31, 2010; 9:15 PM ET
Categories:  national , news  
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Next: In performance: weekend roundup


The Grammys are mostly irrelevant to current happenings in pop music, so I don't know why anyone would think their relationship with classical would be any different.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | January 31, 2010 9:42 PM | Report abuse

How many does Yo-Yo Ma have now? He must've won something at least every year. Between him and Fleming, they sure have America's Classical Musicians covered.

I'm thrilled about Volpone. I don't think its the most incredible work, but I do think its a lot of fun and deserves to get on stage more- I also think Wolf Trap deserve a medal for not only taking the chance with a commission but also a recording, and hurrah for Musto for doing a comic (at last! a contemporary comic opera!) opera that wasn't a Cliffs Notes of a Great American Novel or Film.

Posted by: ianw2 | February 1, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

Award shebangs are public parlor games. From a purely artistic point de vue, though, I prefer not to think in terms of which recordings are "best" but rather whether any given recording is worth a listen. Both the recording of Billy Budd and that of The Schnozz mentioned here are excellent, for example. I don't want to either/or, or rank them. I want to continue enjoying both.

Posted by: ScottRose | February 1, 2010 10:52 AM | Report abuse

The Emerson String Quartet Janacek CD is spectacular. A "must have" CD for anyone who likes these works.


Posted by: shovetheplanet | February 1, 2010 1:29 PM | Report abuse

for what it's worth, reviewed the grammy triple winner, mtt sfso mahler 8 cd:

artistic quality: 8/10
sound quality: 8/10

respectable scores, but nothing outstanding.

Posted by: Derekww | February 4, 2010 2:25 PM | Report abuse

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