Classical music Grammys: It’s an odd category

Discordant note is struck in scaling classical division of Grammy Awards

for Arts - 12classical - Gustavo Dudamel makes his Hollywood Bowl debut as director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Los Angeles on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2009. The 28-year-old Venezuelan conductor was welcomed with a free community concert entitled "°Bienvenido Gustavo!" Dudamel conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor. Op 125. (Jason Redmond/ AP) 18openings Library Tag 10182009 Arts & Entertainment
Jason Redmond/AP
A download of Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic is up for a Grammy.

The classical division of the Grammy Awards has suffered as much as any by the reduction in categories this year from 109 to 78. Where there used to be 11 classical awards (plus one each for production and engineering), there are now just seven.

Grammy bloat has, of course, been an issue for some time. One can see the logic in the Recording Academy’s merging best chamber music performance and best small ensemble performance into best small ensemble performance, since only the Academy knew which was which in any case. But merging best instrumental soloist performance with orchestra and best instrumental soloist performance without orchestra into best classical instrumental solo means that recitals now have to compete with concerto performances.

Two categories have been eliminated altogether: best classical album and best classical crossover album. ‘‘The Goat Rodeo Sessions,’’ for which Yo-Yo Ma teamed up with bluegrass musicians Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, and Chris Thile (they made their live debut at the House of Blues last month), would have been a plausible best classical crossover album winner. Instead, the album had to duke it out with the Americana and bluegrass entries, and it didn’t even get nominated.


As for best classical album, granted, pitting Chinese recorder concertos against ‘‘La traviata’’ makes no sense, but it’s always been fun to see who came out on top. Now everybody has to compete in the album of the year category. And since album of the year is really ‘‘pop album of the year,’’ it’s safe to assume there won’t be any classical nominees, let alone winners.

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What’s notable about the classical recordings that have been nominated this year is the absence of big names — and the abundance of small labels. Mozart? Tchaikovsky? Mahler? Make way for Schwantner, Martinu, and Rautavaara. Lang Lang? Joshua Bell? Michael Tilson Thomas? Anne-Sophie Mutter? Sorry. Berlin Philharmonic? Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam? BSO? Maybe next year. Meanwhile, Seraphic Fire Media has as many nominations as Deutsche Grammophon (two each), and Cedille Records’ four tops EMI Classics’ three.

What’s more, the biggest name in what is, with the withdrawal of best classical album, the glamour category, best orchestral performance, isn’t even a record: so far, Deutsche Grammophon has offered Gustavo Dudamel’s live performance of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony with the Los Angeles Philharmonic only as an iTunes download. It will be interesting to see how a media darling with a novel (extremely expansive) view of a symphonic staple fares against less celebrated competition: Andrew Davis in the two symphonies of York Bowen; Nicholas McGegan in Haydn’s Symphonies Nos. 88, 101, and 104; Marek Janowski in Hans Werner Henze’s Symphonies Nos. 3, 4, and 5; and Jirí Belohlávek in Bohuslav Martinu’s six symphonies.

Best opera recording is also a mixed bag. Alan Gilbert’s Metropolitan Opera performance of John Adams’s ‘‘Doctor Atomic’’ has ‘‘winner’’ written all over its combination of hot conductor, revered opera house, and relevant subject matter. But Antonio Pappano and the Royal Opera House have Renée Fleming to anchor their performance of Verdi’s ‘‘La traviata.’’ Mark Elder’s recording of Britten’s ‘‘Billy Budd’’ with the London Philharmonic Orchestra could be a contender. And then there are the two dark horses: Fabio Biondi and his Europa Galante ensemble (who played at Sanders Theatre just last Sunday) in Vivaldi’s Hercules opera ‘‘Ercole sul Termodonte,’’ and Hannu Lintu and the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra in the premiere recording of an opera about Hungarian miners, Einojuhani Rautavaara’s ‘‘Kaivos.’’

The new best classical instrumental solo category has Yuja Wang in Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and ‘‘Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini’’ (with Claudio Abbado and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra) going head to head with Leif Ove Andsnes in Rachmaninov’s Piano Concertos Nos. 3 and 4 (with Antonio Pappano and the London Symphony Orchestra). Will they knock each other out? Will Christopher Lamb’s performance of Joseph Schwantner’s Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra slip in? Or Ursula Oppens’s piano recital of music by John Corigliano? Or could it be Michala Petri in a disc of, yes, Chinese recorder concertos?


Some other categories are even more of a jumble sale. For best choral performance, Seraphic Fire’s performance of Brahms’s ‘‘Ein deutsches Requiem’’ — in Brahms’s own arrangement for chorus and fourhand piano — is up against Eric Whitacre’s new disc (with an actual choir), Trinity College Choir Cambridge doing American music, a disc of mostly Norwegian lullabies, and Paul Hillier leading song cycles by Danish composer Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen. And don’t look for any Beethoven string quartets among the best small ensemble performance nominees, where we have Eighth Blackbird in music from ‘‘Slide,’’ Gabriela Lena Frank’s quartet inspired by Peruvian weaving, El Mundo in ‘‘The Kingdoms of Castille,’’ ‘‘A Seraphic Fire Christmas,’’ and the Bay Brass’s ‘‘Sound the Bells!’’

The wrinkle, as always, in the classical division is the question of whether the performers or the music get the award. Katy Perry is judged on what she sings as well as how she sings it. But it’s difficult to judge an orchestra’s performance of York Bowen’s symphonies when there’s hardly any recorded competition. Sometimes the classical musicians are rewarded simply for bringing neglected compositions to light.