Moron...er, more on classical labels
I started at WFCR as the night guy in mid-September, 1978. You remember September '78, don't you? Jimmy Carter was president (who verified the election?). The Camp David Accords had just been signed. Disco was dying, if too slowly. Cavett, Carson and Snyder (haw-haw-haw!) made for a strong late-night TV talk lineup, though please don't ask me how I knew that. And on the 2nd of October, two weeks into my tenure, the Yankees' light-hitting shortstop Russell Earl Dent, known to Red Sawx fans ever since as Bucky F. Dent (you can look up the F.), tucked a sweet little three-run homer into the screen j-u-s-t above the Green Mawnstah, thereby turning a rowdy Fenway Pahk into a suitable venue for John Cage's most famous piece. Yes, it was a good time to an American, a Yankees' fan, and a newly-christened public radio professional.
Not that classical music, that perpetually bubbling cauldron of bitter controversy, didn't do its part to keep things frothy. Au contraire, mes amis classiques! For at that very time (give or take), a cataclysm raged that shook the supposedly indestructable edifice of orchestral recording down to its double basses. Three of America's "big five" orchestras (Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Philadelphia) ended their long-term contracts with the great American classical labels, Columbia Masterworks and RCA Red Seal. The sorrow! The pity! Worse, they were signing instead with -- wait for it -- European labels. Unheard of! Unthinkable! Absurd! Such at least was the reaction of classical critics and other insiders, never a group to underestimate the overall cultural significance of their particular obsession. Whether anyone outside their circle gave a viola's tailpiece who was recording for whom is a subject for a later post.
Within the space of a few years in the mid-late '70s, Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, who had only a few years earlier moved from Columbia to RCA, bolted for Angel, the American imprint of England's EMI. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra followed their conductor, Sir Georg Solti, to London (known elsewhere then, and everywhere now, as Decca), where he was under exclusive contract. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, then under the direction of Austrian conductor William Steinberg, had signed earlier with the prestigious German "yellow label", Deutsche Grammophon. Only the New York Philharmonic and Cleveland Orchestra stayed put, both with Columbia. Perhaps that's because Columbia really wanted them; perhaps that's because, under conductors Zubin Mehta and Lorin Maazel respectively, no one else did. Either way.
It all seems so long ago and far away. Now, exactly none of these orchestras is under contract to any label, domestic or foreign. The last of them to have any such deal was the Philadelphia Orchestra, which between 2005 and 2008, made nine CDs under an agreement with Ondine, a fine mid-sized label from Finland. How'd that work out? Not too bad, musically, with a brilliant version of Béla Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra the pick of the litter. But then, Philly conductor Christoph Eschenbach suddenly left the Orchestra in '08 after a disappointing tenure of only five years. And the contract with Ondine was not renewed. This was the same Philadelphia Orchestra whose musicians went on strike for 64 days in 1996 after EMI dropped them, depriving the musicians of lucrative recording fees. The musicians may not have been willing to admit it at the time, but it soon became clear that the gravy train of big-label recording had already left the station, bound for oblivion, on a one-way journey to the bargain bins.
More in a later post.