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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 12/ 7/2010

The Grammy nobody knows

By Anne Midgette

In the wake of the announcements of the Grammy nominations last week, two Los Angeles Times bloggers ran a post observing that “the Recording Academy is so much more eager to reward commercial hits than the motion picture academy.” The statement can be debated, but one thing is certain: the authors weren’t looking at this year’s classical music nominations when they wrote it.

We’ve heard a lot about how the record industry isn’t dying because there are so many new recordings -- more than anybody can listen to. This year’s Grammy nominations in classical music appear to show the results of this embarrassment of riches: a sampling of recordings so wide-ranging as to appear nearly random. It’s often said that the Grammy voters go for names they recognize, but the nominations this year may curb that tendency by not offering much name recognition at all. Works by the composers Steven Mackey and Michael Daugherty were both nominated for Best Classical Album; the five nominated operas were not by Verdi or Wagner but by Berg, Hasse, Saariaho, Shchedrin, and Sir Arthur Sullivan; and Mitsuko Uchida was the lone big name in a category -- Best Instrumental Soloist Performance (with Orchestra) -- that included a mandolin concerto by Avner Dorman played by Avi Avital, Eliesha Nelson playing a viola concerto by Quincy Porter, and Joseph Banowetz performing a piano concerto by Paul Kletzki. No MTT (or a Hilary Hahn) in sight.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece about how irrelevant the classical Grammys have become, though I finished by saying that that they might be more relevant than ever in that they’re reflecting the diversity of the field and building up niche markets rather than aiming for the mainstream. (Again, this runs counter to the Grammy nomination trends in other musical genres, if the LA Times writers are to be believed.) Now, it seems the award is actually becoming a sort of Rorschach test for the sea changes in the field: it may or may not reflect something that’s going on; you can choose how you want to read it; and it looks, at first glance, like a colorful but shapeless blob.

What can one read from this year’s inkblot? Mainly, the field’s ever-growing diversity: of 55 slots for classical nominations, three labels that were once titans in the industry -- Deutsche Grammophon, Decca, and Sony -- got all of 7 between them. Naxos alone got 10, and that’s not counting all the labels it distributes. And while I labor under the illusion that most of the classical recordings issued at any given time make their way across my desk, some of the recordings were new to me.

Indeed, the market is so glutted with CDs that a very few voices can create the illusion of popularity -- just as they do on the classical Billboard charts. The nominating process, as I outlined it in my 2008 article, is that labels submit titles; some 11,000 members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences are eligible to vote on them, narrowing the field down to 10 nominees in each category; and these 10 are winnowed to five by a committee of industry insiders. In a system like this, with hundreds of nominations and not necessarily that many voters familiar with all the titles, it doesn’t take many votes to get ahead; a recording with a few strong champions has, I think, a good chance of making the cut.

The result is a field in which tastes are so individual, and there are so many things to choose from, that there’s no longer any wide consensus about what is best. It’s striking how little overlap there is between the classical Grammy nominations and some of the best-of-2010 lists that have been coming out in places like the New York Times and NPR. (Stay tuned for my own picks in the Washington Post and on WNYC’s Soundcheck next week.)

Indeed, the classical Grammys have taken on some of the features of an Internet poll, where partisans can bring about big wins for their candidate of choice. Whenever I write about the classical Grammys, I know I’ll get responses that say everyone knows they don’t matter anyway; that’s true, and the current crop of nominations bears that out. And yet winning a Grammy does continue to have some weight. It will be interesting to see how that weight is borne by a recording that has low sales and no reviews; and if this eclectic bunch of nominations succeeds in doing anything to get attention for some less-known music, it’s a good thing. Just as long as the classical Grammy doesn’t go the way of the polka one.

By Anne Midgette  | December 7, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  national, news, random musings  
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Your coverage and comments on the Classical Grammy helps keep it relevant. The Classical Grammy represents a standard. As four classical colleagues and I head into a week of recording for a new CD this month, along with working to document and preserve the art of classical music, we are also considering that we want to produce something Grammy-worthy. Since most classical musicians don't make a profit by producing recordings, Grammy nominations add a bit of positive reinforcement. Not that commercial artists don't care about what they do, but we all know that generally classical artists play because they love to, not because they are driven by financial benefits. If we garner a Grammy nomination, it won't mean that we will suddenly have "big" careers, but we will be delighted that maybe more folks will be intrigued enough to listen to our performances.

Posted by: lharlow | December 7, 2010 11:01 AM | Report abuse

Great article, Ms. Midgette. It really is heartening to see the range of music among the nominated recordings. I'm also glad to see Naxos CDs and several self-produced concert discs on the list, as these endeavors have given unexpected pleasure.

Posted by: GCapaldini | December 7, 2010 5:48 PM | Report abuse

I thought there was a Grammy by-law to include at least one (1) Yo-Yo Ma recording?

Posted by: ianw2 | December 8, 2010 8:13 AM | Report abuse

New music is ok, as long as it's great music. The Grammys should not push some new stuff just because it's new. If a piece is something I won't listen to a third time, then it's bad. I might not know anything about art but I know what I like.

Posted by: pronetoviolins | December 8, 2010 3:13 PM | Report abuse

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