Dotting Grammy’s eye

A reader writes to tell me that I’m wrong about the Grammys. There’s no contradiction between the Boulez Mahler Third being named the best orchestral performance, while the Tilson Thomas CD of the same piece is named best classical album. There seems to be a problem here, of course, because if the best album is orchestral, as this one is, than you’d think it would be best orchestral performance as well.

But not so, says my correspondent. The orchestral award is specifically for the music — “best orchestral performance” is exactly what it means. And the best album award is for everything about the CD release — not just the performance but other things as well, like recording quality. Thus the awards are really for two different things, and can’t really be examined side by side.

I stand corrected. But still I wasn’t wrong to note a contradiction, because my correspondent only explained half the mystery. Note that the Boulez CD was nominated for best album, and didn’t win. This, under the rules I needed to have clarified, could in fact be logical. The performance, one could say, just marginally beat out the Tilson Thomas one, but the recording quality and everything else about the Tilson Thomas album was so far superior that — taking everything into account — it topped Boulez for the main award.

But here’s what’s weird: Tilson Thomas wasn’t even nominated for best orchestral performance! Maybe the music isn’t all that the best album award recognizes, but surely it ought to count a lot. Surely the best classical album should stand out musically; surely, on musical grounds alone, it ought to be one of the top CDs of the year.

So then how could the Tilson Thomas Mahler Third not qualify as one of the top orchestral albums of the year? How can something be the best classical album released in 2003, if — in the evident opinion of the Grammy organizers — it’s musically not strong enough to even rate a nomination in its proper category?

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