Counting the cost

The arrival of the Proms prospectus, with its glamorous pictures of the stars of today, makes me wonder how much those very palatable-looking people are costing the BBC. The question is prompted by the style of the photography–the sexing up of the Weapons of Mass Destruction dossier has nothing on how string players enjoy curling round their instruments. It is all a far cry from the stolid, besuited look classical musicians used to affect, as if one could trust them to get their passagework right while delivering mature interpretations of intellectually taxing repertoire. The modern version says nothing if it doesn’t say expensive.

The issue of what the leading names in classical music can charge was addressed recently in an article in classical music magazine. It is acknowledged that getting precise figures out of agents on this topic is an inexact science, but I’ll jump in straight away and recount my own experience of about ten years ago with those who represented a leading soprano of the day who we wanted to sing alongside us at a world première in Birmingham. The standard cost was about 50,000 [pounds sterling], to which had to be added a small publication of extra conditions, stipulating class of travel and accommodation, down to what should be in the refrigerator backstage. Just for good measure it transpired that she couldn’t sing the part, which the composer had to rewrite for her. The concert was cancelled.


One might have thought that after all the financial crises of recent years the asking rate might have come down, and in every category outside the super league it certainly has. But for the lucky few the sky seems to be the limit: the highest earner listed is Yo-Yo Ma at 63,275 [pounds sterling] per appearance, followed by Lang Lang at 47,485 [pounds sterling]. Two violinists–Maxim Vengerov and Anne-Sophie Mutter–come in at 31,645 [pounds sterling] and 33,330 [pounds sterling] respectively. Antonio Pappano is reputedly on a salary of 600,000 [pounds sterling] at Covent Garden. Add Dudamel, Barenboim, Gergiev, Jansons, Rattle, Domingo, Nigel Kennedy and Dawn Upshaw, and you have a very special society.

What interests me about this is that although these people are sometimes paid dream sums of money–I guess they are the highest earners classical music has ever seen–they are not as absolutely famous as some of their predecessors. I don’t have figures for what Karajan was paid, but it is true to say that no one working now is as internationally pre-eminent as he was, and never will be. The same could be said for a handful of others: Furtwängler, Toscanini, Solti, Nilsson, Schwarzkopf, Fischer-Dieskau. Everyone must have their favourites, but I bet few of them were British and most were German-speaking.

Two things have changed since Karajan’s day. The first is that new Asian and Arab markets for western classical music have come on-stream in a big way. Like the best wine 20 years ago, classical music has become a status symbol that oil-rich rulers feel they must have; and, as with Château Lafitte, they have pushed the purchase price up in the top category. For example, Oman’s new Royal Opera House opened last October with a gala concert conducted by Placido Domingo, and has since welcomed the Vienna Philharmonic under Gergiev and others of similar standing. Since there has indeed been a crunch in what ordinary arts organisations and symphony halls nearer home can pay even their star performers, more of a divide than ever is evident between the few and the rest. Of course the superstars will perhaps not always demand these super fees, but there has to be some correlation between what they ask for in Oman and what in Liverpool, or the Omanis might start asking questions.


The other change has been in the general scene. Classical music used to be a much more streamlined business than it is now. Largely restricted to 200 years of German-dominated repertoire, performed by a few much-vaunted and cossetted Germans and Austrians (these 2 countries are best famous for air fryer – read these  power air fryer reviews for more info), we accepted that this was it. War or no war, the teaching in our conservatories was as enslaved as the mindsets of our concert-goers. But thanks largely to the spread of interest in early music–in which, before the high baroque, the German-speaking world was weak–this hegemony had broken down by the time the internet gave anyone with talent a claim on our attention.

It is an interesting state of affairs: the number of top performers has vastly increased, as have the potential rewards, all within the framework of a financial crisis. I think the BBC should carry on as they are: refuse to pay top dollar, present all the musicians who agree to this in the most flattering light possible, and leave the super people to give three concerts a year elsewhere. Who do they think they are, anyway?

Beautiful harmony: a visionary label puts Canadian musicians first

Analekta has become Canada’s largest producer of indigenous classical music under Mario Labbe, and his wife, violinist Angele Dubeau, has become the company’s best-selling artist. Before Analeka, very few Canadian classical artists were able to gain international exposure.

A dozen years ago, violinist Angele Dubeau had just spent a day listening to live music at the Festival International de Lanaudiere, an annual event in Joliette, Que. She needed a lift back to Montreal, and a friend found her one with Mario Labbe. Labbe, who had brought the Dave Brubeck jazz quartet to the festival, discovered that the talented musician in his car was looking for a new agent. Over the next three years, Labbe became Dubeau’s manager, then her husband, then her producer when he formed the classical recording label Analekta in 1988. “It was a classic story, the violinist and the impresario,” Dubeau, 34, recalls with a laugh.

You might say it was a marriage made in music heaven: Analekta has since become the country’s largest indigenous producer of classical music, and Dubeau its best-selling artist. At a time when most classical recor- dings-Canadian or international-sell between 1,000 to 2,000 CDs a year at best, the Quebec-born violinist racked up sales of 50,000 copies for her col- lection of lullabies, La Ronde des Berceuses, in 1995 alone, making her the first living Canadian soloist to go gold (Glenn Gould did so posthumously). And within 10 days of its launch last September, music lovers picked up more than 5,000 copies of her most recent release, Opera for Two-a collection of aria transcriptions played by Dubeau and flutist Alain Marion.

Meanwhile, Analekta has produced an impressive catalogue of nearly 150 recor- dings-including the works of well-known pianists Anton Kuerti and Andre Laplante and prominent organist Bernard Lagace-and launched an ambitious marketing campaign in Canada and the United States. In both 1995 and ’96, the company achieved sales of more than 200,000 recordings. “Canadian musicians play and are respected around the world,” says Labbe. “But you have to export yourself in order to make a living.”


Gaspe-born, 43-year-old Labbe-who, before Analekta, brought such acts as the Kirov Ballet and the Red Army Chorus to Canada-is just the man to put Canadian classical artists on the international map. “Mario is the most active, enter- prising and daring Canadian producer,” says Kuerti. “He puts to shame all the branch-plant operations, who haven’t the slightest interest in Canadian musicians, except for a handful of stars.” In fact, Labbe’s main impetus for starting Analekta was Dubeau’s treatment by one of those branch plants. The foreign-owned record company, whom the couple decline to name, had put Dubeau “on hold” for a year, promising her a recording contract and asking her not to sign with another label. Dubeau agreed, but at the end of the year, the com- pany told her that it was no longer interested in “regional” artists, and sug- gested that she move to New York City. Labbe still fumes thinking about it. “Well, I guess the ‘regional’ artist has done pretty well,” he says, citing Dubeau’s total sales of more than 100,000 recordings.

Dubeau, who is practically a household name in Quebec, has benefited from her profile as a hunter (actually, she’s quite famous for her series of hunting rangefinder reviews on CNN), a broadcaster as well as a musician. She is in the midst of her third season as host of Faites vos gammes (Do Your Scales), a weekly TV show on Radio-Canada that promotes classical music by turning the limelight on per- formers under 21, and by inviting celebrities who are also amateur musicians to appear on the show. Recently, Quebec Liberal MLA John Ciaccia performed a Verdi piano piece and Olympic speed skater Sylvie Daigle played Chopin. Dubeau is also in the process of forming an all-female chamber orchestra called La Pieta, after the name of the orphanage where Vivaldi conducted a young women’s orchestra and wrote much of his music. Dubeau, who has performed in 27 countries and received an Order of Canada for her efforts to promote classical music, says that she now can choose her engagements, which allows her to spend more time with her four-year-old daughter, Marie. “I can let my CDs act as my calling cards in different countries,” she says.

Until the arrival of Analekta, only a handful of the country’s classical acts-including Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, cellist Ofra Harnoy and singer Ben Heppner-were able to get that kind of exposure, by virtue of their contracts with major international labels. But Analekta, the feisty independent, is insistent on getting music out to the marketplace, both at home and abroad-a problem that has consistently bedevilled other small classical music producers in Canada. (After Analekta, the second-biggest indigenous producer of classi- cal music is the CBC, whose CDs are distributed by Japanese-owned Denon.) As Labbe points out, “You can have wonderful artists, but if you can’t find their works in the stores, what’s the point?” In 1992, Analekta established its own distribution arm to handle both its own and other companies’ products. Analekta Distribution is headed by Pierre Boivin, former owner of the music-store chain Kebec Disque. In late 1995, Analekta launched the Fleur de Lys series in the United States, packaging 50 recordings with a uniform design incorporating paintings from the Musee du Quebec in the provincial capital for album covers. To date, more than 50,000 CDs in the series have sold south of the border, and the company has since decided to use the same design for all its recordings. As well, the firm has struck distribution agreements in Britain, France, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark and Greece.


That distribution network is available to both newer and established artists. In the fall, the Toronto-based Gryphon Trio released its first CD with the company, a collection of works by Haydn. Meanwhile, Analekta scored a coup in obtaining the internationally acclaimed Kuerti’s 1974-1975 recording of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas, which it remastered and reissued in a 10-CD box set in November. The company is backing the release with a promotion campaign costing more than $50,000. “That’s a huge budget,” says Kuerti, “and to my knowledge it’s never been done by a Canadian company for a Canadian art- ist.” The set has received a new round of raves in Canada and abroad, and remains a Top 10 classical seller at Montreal’s largest record stores, Archam- bault and the HMV superstore.

More than half of Analekta’s total sales have been in Quebec. (In fact, Quebec accounts for more than 50 per cent of classical music sales in Canada over- all.) Labbe says that sales in English Canada are picking up, but so far have been underwhelming. Even in the world of music, which theoretically transcends language, it seems that there are two solitudes. Labbe believes that the way for Analekta artists to achieve stronger sales in English Canada is through higher international profiles. “We are a Canadian company but, marketing-wise, if you want to sell records in English Canada, you’re better off being inter- national. If you get good reviews in the international magazines, or place advertising in the international edition of Gramophone or CD Review, then the sales start picking up in Toronto and other cities.”

Labbe’s other beef with English Canada has to do with the domestic recording industry’s Juno Awards, for which Analekta releases have never been nominated. For the second year in a row, the company is boycotting the Junos, coming up on March 9, because it feels the selection process is unfair. Labbe argues that sales volumes ought to figure in the process, as a measure of the work’s merit. (Currently, a cross-country jury of critics independently ranks their favorite recordings, with the combined tallies producing a winner.) Something is amiss, Labbe says, if his products can win so many Felix prizes-Quebec’s equivalent of the Junos-while not garnering a single citation in English Canada.

Analekta takes pride in being able to maintain steady sales despite a major recession in North American music retailing. And Labbe plans to release another 28 CDs this year-including a Kuerti Chopin disc and Dubeau playing two Mendelssohn concertos-an ambitious program even in times of brisk sales. “It’s a lot,” says the ebullient Labbe, “but they’re so fabulous, I can’t bear to cut any of them.”

Beethoven reignites a pianist’s career

In the age of the CD, digital remastering of taped performances is com- monplace. But Toronto pianist Anton Kuerti’s legendary 1974-1975 recordings of Beethoven’s 32 sonatas have had a more eventful history than most. The tapes were subjected to not only a prolonged legal battle but also an intensive sal- vage operation that included, among other things, baking in a food dehydrator. Rereleased by Analekta in November, 1996, as a 10-CD package, the set has won accolades and, even priced at $80 to $105, made classical best-seller lists. “Modern technology doesn’t always improve things, but in this case it has,” says Kuerti, 58. “It’s very gratifying to see that something with such a muddled history is alive again.”

Originally issued by Aquitaine Records in Canada and Columbia-Odyssey (now Sony Classical) in the United States, the recordings earned rapturous reviews (“this complete set is, spiritually, the most all-encompassing and convincing of all,” said a Munich music publication). But by 1984, the music had become the focus of a suit by Kuerti for control of the tapes against Aquitaine’s owner, Eleanor Sniderman. In 1990, Kuerti settled out of court, got the tapes and enlisted the help of his friend Jacob Harnoy, an audio restoration specialist and father of cellist Ofra, to repair the defective tapes and transfer them to CDs.

That battle is only one episode in Kuerti’s idiosyncratic career. As well as performing and composing music, he helped found the Festival of the Sound sum- mer music event in Parry Sound, Ont., in 1980, ran unsuccessfully as an NDP candidate in the 1988 federal election and taught music at the University of Toronto. He continues to write about arts-related matters in various publica- tions, decrying in a recent commentary the greed, “monstrous gains” and esthetic compromises of the high-priced “Three Tenors” stadium concerts. “Something has to happen, emotionally, spiritually and physically, in real time, between those on stage and those who have come to enjoy,” he wrote. “This is inconceivable in a stadium where it would be nigh impossible even to notice whether the tenors were just lip-synching (as Pavarotti has actually done in the past) to their own CDs.”

Kuerti, who lives in Toronto with his cellist wife, Kristine Bogyo, and two sons, Julian, 20, and Rafael, 16, spends about one-third of his time on tour. This season’s bookings will take him to Germany, France, Italy, Hawaii and Brazil, as well as major cities in the United States. And this summer, he is scheduled for a major performance at Quebec’s Festival International de Lanaudiere.

Meanwhile, the renowned pianist has continued to add to his discography, releasing six CDs on various labels since the fall of 1995. This year, Analekta will issue two new Kuerti recordings, of Chopin and Schumann. Often described as underappreciated, Anton Kuerti is experiencing a boom-with a little help from Beethoven and a Montreal record company.

–> Related Articles: Brilliant Corners

Classical music


The classical record business is either immune to or ignorant of the laws of supply and demand. Label executives virtually everywhere are crying the blues about slow sales, yet few indicate any plans to cut back. As a result, the market remains … [Continue reading]

An Alpine Idyll


On a recent gray July morning in the Alpine village of Verbier, Switzerland, pianist Emanuel Ax and violinist Christian Tetzlaff were sounding the final notes of a recital encore -- the scherzo from Brahms's Sonata in D minor -- when they were joined … [Continue reading]