Well, maybe they give their winners bragging rights, or a small — tiny? — commercial boost.
But in any larger musical, cultural, or commercial sense they don’t matter at all. Not because awards shows might be silly, or because winning an award might be no guarantee of artistic strength, or because (as some people might think) classical music itself might not matter.
No, the classical Grammys don’t matter because hardly anyone — including classical music fans — hears most of the recordings that are nominated, so there’s no context in which winning could mean very much.
Compare pop. Adele was nominated for six awards, and — this doesn’t happen often — won all of them. Which means quite a lot. She’s a huge star, of course. But to be nominated this many times, and then to sweep her nominations, represents a rare tidal surge, a confluence of popularity, critical acclaim, and professional respect. (This last matters a lot in the Grammys, because the voters who decide the awards are music professionals.)
Likewise for Kanye West winning all four hiphop Grammys (even though, as critics noted, he should have also been nominated for record and album of the year). His album was praised, honored, loved, talked about. No way you could follow pop music, and not know that he and Adele would, very likely, be top Grammy contenders.
Now back to classical music. Here are the nominees for Best Orchestral Performance:
- Brahms: Symphony No. 4, conducted by Dudamel
- York Bowen: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2, conducted by Andrew Davis
- Haydn: Symphonies 104, 88 & 101, conducted by Nicholas McGegan
- Henze: Symphonies Nos. 3-5, conducted by Marek Janowski
- Martinu: The Six Symphonies, conducted by Jirí Belohlávek,
Dudamel, of course, is huge. But classical recordings don’t sell very well. so it’s more than possible that many classical fans didn’t know this recording existed. And very likely not many bought it.
A thought experiment. Picture the top 20 orchestras in the US, playing night after night in their very large halls, Symphony Hall in Boston, Powell Hall in St. Louis, Disney Hall in LA, the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas.
Thousands and thousands of people. Suppose a mere 100 people who hear each orchestra bought one of these Best Orchestral Performance nominees. That would mean 2000 sales for that album, gigantic for a classical release.
And maybe, just maybe, Dudamel’s Brahms sold that well. But Henze? Martinu? Bowen? Not likely.
In fact, if you went to Symphony Hall, Powell Hall, Disney Hall, or the Meyerson — or anywhere else that classical music is played — and randomly asked people if they’d even heard of these recordings (let alone listened to them), wouldn’t the answer be “No!”
So what does it mean if one of these records wins? For most classical listeners, nothing at all. It touches nothing they know, not even anything in their musical lives.
And if that’s true of the orchestral recordings, what should we say about the Best Contemporary Classical Composition nominees? Robert Aldridge’s opera Elmer Gantry beat out, among other recordings, Jefferson Friedman’s String Quartet No. 3. How many people care?
Well, I do — Friedman’s quartet (from a CD that sat around for years, unreleased) is very hot, one of the most striking classical pieces I’ve heard in the past few years, while Elmer Gantry doesn’t do much for me. But go back to Powell Hall. Or, for a new music crowd, the thousands who flock to Bang on a Can’s annual marathon. How many people at either place know these recordings exist?
(Go here to see the other nominees in this category, works by George Crumb, Steven Mackey, and Poul Ruders.)
One of this year’s classical Grammys most likely did resonate — Eric Whitacre’s Light & Gold, which won for Best Choral Performance. Whitacre is a phenomenon, someone with quite a large following.
And it’s not as if classical records never make waves, at least in the classical world. Thinking back over my long life in classical music, I might name Toscanini’s Beethoven Symphonies, Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations, the first Callas recording of Tosa, Leonard Bernstein’s Mahler, Van Cliburn’s Tchaikovsky (which got on the pop charts), and Georg Solti’s Das Rheingold, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung.
(Solti’s Walkūre wasn’t news, even though it finished his Ring. There had been two fine commercial recordings of Walkūre earlier, but none of Rheingold and Siegfried, and no competentrelease of Götterdämmerung.)
Plus the first Three Tenors CD, a Gregorian chant release in the ‘early 90s, and, maybe, Simone Dinnerstein’s Goldberg Variations. Or maybe, these days, anything she records, since her last album got on the pop charts.
And I’m sure I’ve neglected some notable records — the first Harnoncourt/Leonhardt Bach cantatas, maybe. And, to go back again to the past, when Solti won classical Grammys just about every year, that — whether or not he deserved to win so often — really did reflect his enormous fame as music director of the Chicago Symphony.
But most classical Grammy winners? It’s hard to see where their winning might resonate.
(The photo shows York Bowen, whose symphonies, conducted by Andrew Davis, were nominated for Best Orchestral Performance.)