Classical Grammys: the all-time losers

Classical Grammys: the all-time losers


norman lebrecht

February 11, 2019

You never see the classical Grammys on TV.

In a good year, they turn up at the back of the LA Times website, among the used floss and hairballs.

This year, the NY Times ran a list, somewhere.

It makes no difference. Orchestras will not stab each other in the eye with oboe reeds in a frenzy to sign the next concerto by Aaron Jay Kernis (pic), winner of two Grammys for his violin concerto, nor will the charts explode with sales of the Boston Symphony’s Shostakovich series, winner of best orchestral, excellent though they might be.

The classical sector as dismissed the Grammys long ago as irrelevant.


Here’s the latest list of sorry winners:

Best Engineered Album, Classical: Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 11, Shawn Murphy and Nick Squire, engineers, Tim Martyn, masteering engineer

Producer Of The Year, Classical: Blanton Alspaugh

Best Orchestral Performance: Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 11, Andris Nelsons, conductor

Best Opera Recording: “Bates: The (R)evolution Of Steve Jobs”

Best Choral Performance: “McLoskey: Zealot Canticles,” Donald Nally, conductor

Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance: “Landfall,” Laurie Anderson and the Kronos Quartet

Best Classical Instrumental Solo: “Kernis: Violin Concerto,” James Ehnes

Best Classical Solo Vocal Album: “Songs Of Orpheus–Monteverdi, Caccini, D’India & Landi,” Karim Sulayman; Jeanette Sorrell, conductor, Apollo’s Fire, ensembles

Best Classical Compendium: “Fuchs: Piano Concerto ‘Spiritualist’; Poems Of Life; Glacier; Rush,” JoAnn Falletta, conductor; Tim Handley, producer

Best Contemporary Classical Composition: “Kernis: Violin Concerto,” James Ehnes, Ludovic Morlot & Seattle Symphony


  • Emil says:

    Certainly classical music is not wide public anymore. But it might also have to do with the fact that in classical music, new records are always in direct competition with earlier records.
    Janelle Monaé is indirectly in competition with pop from 5-10 years ago (and earlier), but her music is different. Pop always moves forward: new songs, new styles, new artists. Pop records come in fashion and out of fashion very fast, and therefore prizes matter and are relevant.
    In classical music (except for new compositions), new records are always in direct competition with past records. Good CDs sell over several years, if not decades (people still buy Carlos Kleiber, Karajan, Heifetz, Grumiaux, Gould, etc.) I’m sure the Boston Symphony’s Shostakovich are great, but they compete with a flurry of other recordings of the same works from the past 40 years or so. If it is a really good record, it might sell for years to come. So is a Grammy important? Sure, it always is. But on the life of a recording, not so much.

    Furthermore, if you hear a good pop CD, that might prompt you to go to that specific artist’s concert. If you hear a great classical CD, that might prompt you to go to *a* classical concert (maybe with the works you heard on CD), not necessarily to the artist who won the Grammy. Very few people will travel to hear a specific orchestra, even less on the basis of a CD

    So is there a loss of influence of classical music? Sure. But it also has to do with the fact that classical music simply is a different market, with different imperatives, structures, and influences.

  • anon says:

    Because we all would tune into the Grammys to watch Andris Nelsons’ back, as he hunches over a music stand, beating time?

    If they had at least nominated Anna Netrebko. She would’ve been a prima donna among divas and gotten respect.

    Leontyne Price performed at the Grammys in her time. And they gave her respect!

    No, I feel sorry for Melania Trump.

    There she was, Michelle Obama, on stage, looking more glam than Lady Gaga, J Lo, Alicia Keys, as part of the opening of the Grammys. Meanwhile in NY, it’s Fashion Week. You KNOW who is dying to be part of it all, but the only thing she gets invited to is her husband’s annual show in front of congress, having to share the balcony with her daughter-in-law and retired sleepy generals…

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      Anyone would look glam sitting beside that rogues’ gallery of kitsch at the Grammys. It’s not a compliment!!

  • Igor says:

    What did Blanton Alspaugh win for?

    • boringfileclerk says:

      If you mean to infer that this was not great music, I only half agree with you. They are very conservative in their outlook, but they aren’t all that bad.

      None of the composers, however, has a grasp of how to compose for the violin. The concertos are a technical nightmare, but Ehnes somehow makes it all sound easy – frighteningly so. He is the Heifetz of our time.

      • Bruce says:

        Totally agree about Ehnes. He’s marvelous.

        A conductor friend of mine mentioned once that orchestras aren’t programming Aaron Jay Kernis’s music very much any more because it’s too hard and requires too much rehearsal.

        (I guess conductors need all that time to polish their Eroicas? Considering what most Eroicas [or substitute your favorite warhorse] sound like, the time would have been better spent doing real work on a new piece and then letting the orchestra have their fun with the warhorse.)

      • John Borstlap says:

        With the link, nothing was inferred. And since it merely gave a very short impression, no conclusive evaluation could be made as to the quality of the piece. I believe that Kernis is one of the best American composers of today. But what could be understood from the clip is that a lot of effort has been put into virtuosity, all effects on the outside, which seems unnecessary. The lyrical bit sounds better although it emanated the faint odor of film music.

        But complex music is not persé needing more rehearsel time – nothing is so difficult as ‘simple’ music where you can hear everything that is not quite right. Imagine an unknown piece of Mozart being discovered and premiered…. it would need at least double as many rehearsels as for a known Mozart piece.

        I would like to refer to the violin concertos of Nicola Bacri, where nothing is written for the mere sake of virtuosity:

  • Daniel says:

    From a European point of view I have to say: I don’t mind! At least the classical Grammy has always been a pretty much US-centered award, with hardly any chances for a production with non-American contributors. This is perfectly fine – as long as people don’t suggest the Grammy to reflect the wide range of classical releases worldwide.

    • Stuart says:

      I am not sure why the Grammy’s didn’t drop the Classical categories ages ago. No one, even in the US, considers them relevant. Awarding the best opera recording to such a painfully mediocre work as the Steve Jobs opera tells you everything you need to know.

      • John Borstlap says:

        That someone seriously would consider to write an opera about Mr Jobs, and that another person would equally seriously consider to produce it, is already embarrassing enough, and that it really happened defies any explanation.

    • David Hilton says:

      I’m not sure the Grammy’s are as US-centered as you posit. Without even looking things up, I can recall most of the opera recordings to win this century, and they incdlue the Royal Opera House’s ‘Jenufa’ with Karita Mattila, conducted by Haitinck, and several LSO opera recordings, such as Ades, ‘The Tempest’, Colin Davis’s ‘Falstaff’ and ‘Les Troyens’, Stravinsky’s ‘Rake’s Progress’, and Britten’s ‘Billy Budd’ . All honoured as recording of the year by the Grammys. Completely European projects all.

  • boringfileclerk says:

    Ehnes did pretty much deserve the Grammy. Nelsons, not so much. Considering the Kronos Quartet is more pop now than classical, I’m surprised they were even allowed in the category.

    The classical Grammy’s have always been a mess. It’s just that the music industry as a whole is imploding. It’s not even relevant to pop groups anymore. It’s just more apparent in the classical music domain. No one appreciates good music anymore. Well, no one with deep enough pockets to keep it floating anyway

    • Luigi Nonono says:

      I think that is only due to the over-emphasis of the Grammys on the business-side of things, sales, and such. That’s what killed Musical America.

  • Larry says:

    Perhaps they don’t affect CD or ticket sales, but the Grammys are chosen by one’s peers so I wouldn’t call them “sorry winners.” It is certainly nice to be recognized by others in your field.

  • MacroV says:

    The Oscars also hands out all sorts of awards that don’t make the telecast (many are in fact awarded in a separate ceremony).

    The classical Grammys may also have had their credibility wrecked within the industry by, in effect, ballot-stuffing. The Atlanta SO won a lot of Grammys in the 1980s-90s because pretty much the entire orchestra and chorus signed up as members of the Academy and voted for their recordings. It got them a lot of attention, but it’s hard to believe that they were turning out the best orchestral recording nearly every year.

    • minacciosa says:

      That is absolutely true and the worst culprits were Chicago and New York.

    • Tamino says:

      Yes, the Grammys are so intransparent, The voting is a mess.
      Apparently those who vote are not known to the outside, and it is also not known if there are experts of classical music and recordings at all.
      I guess one could use the proverbial cockroach to walk over the nominated CDs and choose the winners, and it would yield equally justified results.

  • Michael says:

    Maybe classical music should do their own show? No point anymore being involved with the Grammy Awards is there? Fairly irrelevant category in the scheme of things.

  • Fliszt says:

    Is anybody compelled to buy a classical recording just because it won a Grammy???

  • There are many categories awarded in the 3:30-6:30pm EST ‘live’ show from the Microsoft Center which is accessed via the website. It is like watching the televised show, but not on a television. It is viewable via PC, smartphone etc. It was a wonderful show yesterday!

  • Luigi Nonono says:

    The classical Grammys used to be included in the broadcast, back when classical music was on television, then it got progressively downgraded. Until we establish our own awards, like SAG does, the Grammys do matter because there are no others. Perhaps we need to let England take over our classical music infrastructure so we can have magazines and prizes too.

  • drummerman says:

    No disrespect to Mr. Kernis but “best classical instrumental solo” is for the performer, not the composer so it’s not quite accurate that Mr. Kernis won two Grammys.

    Full disclosure…I was a voting member of NARAS for 20+ years, thought not involved anymore.

  • “The classical sector (h)as dismissed the Grammys long ago as irrelevant.”

    Sorry, ( and I’m sure this will do a good job raking in the “thumbs down”) but in terms of relevance, it’s actually the other way around.

    An art-form that sees new work as little more than a private conversation between it’s participants, an art-form that has long since given up on trying to grow and diversify it’s audience through music created in our time, and one that exists only to preserve it’s archaic hierarchies and institutions as they currently stand, should hardly be surprised if the rest of the world sees it as irrelevant.

  • Spenser says:

    Wow, Norman, I get that you do not like the Grammys. I don’t either.
    But why disrespect the marvelous recordings who DID win the awards (which you took the trouble to list) in such terms as you use:
    “used floss and hairballs”
    “sorry winners”
    I don’t get it.
    Envy, perhaps?

    • John Porter says:

      Well said. These are all wonderful artists and we should be happy for them. What’s the point of being hostile to the winners? The BSO recording is terrific. JoAnn Falletta is terrific. So is Aaron Kernis. This is better than nothing, which might easily come along next year. “Sorry winners.” Sham on you Mr. Lebrecht. I would like to see you compose and/or perform something as good as the works on this list, then you can call them “sorry.”

  • fflambeau says:

    The Grammy awards, like the Academy Awards in movies, are more for marketing than anything else. They are essentially meaningless as indicators of anything but sales and sales potential. Pushing them are the “usual suspects” of big record labels, and their handmaidens in the press and blogosphere.

  • Jack Firestone says:

    Yes, indeed the Grammys are irrelevant to Classical Music.

    With all the awards won by Warner Classics’ “Les Troyens,” did not to get even a Grammy Nomination.

    Here are the other awards for which John Nelson, Joyce DiDonato, Michael Spyres, Nicole LeMieux, and the 14 other wonderful soloists, choruses, and the amazing Orchestre Philharmonie de Strasbourg have been recognized. Alain Lanceron and Daniel Zalay have deserved all of the following and the missing Grammy as well.

    In April 2018:

    BBC Music Magazine – Best Opera Recording of 2018

    International Opera Awards – Best Opera Recording of the Year

    In September 2018:

    Gramophone – Best Opera Recording of the Year [the equivalent of the GRAMMY’s in Great Britain]
    AND Gramophone Best Recording of the Year.

    In October 2018:

    OPUS Klassik Award in Berlin – Best Opera Recording of the year [the equivalent of the GRAMMY’s in Germany]

    In November 2018:

    EDISON Award in Amsterdam – Best Opera Recording of the Year [the equivalent of the GRAMMY’s in the Netherlands]

    Just this week, nominated for Les Victoires de la Musique for Best Recording of the year. The Awards ceremony will be in Paris on February 13th, 2019.

    And not even a Grammy nomination!

  • Karl says:

    I think it’s good recognition when a smaller orchestra gets a Grammy. Albany is pretty proud of the one they received back in 2014 for the Naxos recording of John Corigliano’s “Conjurer,” with Dame Evelyn Glennie.

  • Jack says:

    I remember back in the 1990s when the likes of Emmanuel Ax, Jessye Norman and Placido Domingo performed at the Grammys during the actual national broadcast. Sadly, those days are long gone.