Sunday, April 21, 2002

CSO, Paavo make recording session one to remember

All-Stravinsky CD holds future of Telarc deal

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        "This has to be good. It has to be good,” says Robert Woods, Telarc president and senior producer, during a recording session with Paavo Jarvi and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at Music Hall. The future of the CSO-Telarc team hinges on an all-Stravinsky disc the CSO recorded last month, Mr. Jarvi's third with his new orchestra, to be released next year.

        Even though Telarc has recorded nearly 100 Pops and CSO albums over 31 years — nothing is guaranteed anymore.

        "We don't take anything for granted,” Mr. Jarvi says. "Every recording is life and death, because it has to be on the level that is exceptional.”

        With many record companies abandoning or cutting back on classical music, Telarc's Mr. Woods is taking a risk to record the CSO. He is pinning his hopes on the CSO's 39-year-old maestro, considered one of the young Turks of the conducting world, as well as Telarc's forward-looking technology. The combination, if it works, could redefine the classical music recording industry, he believes.

        "If it wasn't for the fact that Paavo is here now, and the excitement level is what it is, ... I wouldn't be (here),” says Mr. Woods, who has won 10 of Telarc's 31 Grammy Awards. "In fact, over the last few years, I seriously was looking at this whole thing and saying, what's going to happen?

        "The model that was the record industry that we knew is broken, and it's not reparable. We're involved, pretty much, in trying to create a new one.”

        The classical recording industry is in turmoil, beginning with a CD glut in the '80s, reduced demand and a slump in sales. Major orchestras such as Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland and New York have lost long term recording contracts. The Three Tenors paved the way to more emphasis on crossover.

        And downsizing is rampant: Last month, EMI was the latest label to announce it was dropping 400 artists and laying off 1,800 of its work force — 20 percent of its worldwide staff.

        Both Mr. Jarvi and Mr. Woods are feeling the pressure during the Sunday night recording session. Beads of sweat dot foreheads. Veins stand out on necks.

        On the docket are two fiendishly difficult works: Stravinsky's orchestral showpiece, The Firebird Suite and the neoclassical Jeu de cartes. In two three-hour sessions, they must record the ballet suite, Petrouchka,and Scherzo a la Russe, as well. Above all, it has to be good.

        "For us to do feel-good records that are not technically or musically challenging will not raise our own standard, and will not raise opinion about us in other peoples' eyes,” Mr. Jarvi says. "We need to go in and say look, this is one of the most complicated things, and we can do it better than anybody.”

        7:10 p.m.: "Is it my imagination, or is the tempo slower?” Mr. Woods asks John Morris Russell, CSO associate conductor, as the orchestra begins the opening bars of The Firebird. "It's not going anywhere.”

        He is also not happy with the sound quality.

        "Very plummy in the bass, very plummy,” he says, shaking his head. Technicians run over and whisper in his ear. "I'm not happy about anything right now,” he says, and calls for a break.

        7:19 p.m.: Mr. Jarvi dashes from Music Hall's stage to the tiny recording booth for the first playback. In the three-hour session, only 120 minutes will be actual recording time. The other 60 minutes is break time for the musicians, strictly regulated by a stopwatch to conform with union rules. Time is money.

        "Microphones are scary to me,” says Mr. Jarvi, grimacing as he dons earphones, slides into a chair and pours over a score. Wearing a black shirt and black pants, he pushes his sleeves up, throws a towel around his neck, and takes a swig from a water bottle.

        Technical crew, conducting assistants, CSO staff members and musicians — some holding their instruments — cram the miniscule room. It is also Cincinnati Opera's prop room. A pink stuffed pig dangles over the recording console; closets and shelves overflow with baskets, busts, scepters and vaguely familiar candlesticks, perhaps from the last production of Tosca.

        The Firebird is an obstacle course of passages that take split-second precision — not to mention virtuosity and musicality. After three performances in three days, the musicians look tired. Can they still play with spontaneity, keep up the adrenalin — and the electricity that comes when one performs before a live audience?

        "It's murderously difficult to play. There are few things more difficult than Stravinsky,” acknowledges Mr. Jarvi. "In a way, that's also one of the things that turns me on, because it's a personal challenge for every single person, including me.”

        But he's tired, too, and asks his staff for chocolate — any candy at all. They shake their heads, looking through pockets. "I need sugar,” he pleads.

        As he listens, he turns with a meaningful look to a brass player. "It's the upbeat that's late,” he says. Then, to a violinist, he says, "It's the legato. It has to be as long and glued together as you can.”

        They nod, swallowing hard.

        Mr. Woods, meanwhile, is worried about getting it all done. Too much music. Too little time.

        "It has nothing to do with the orchestra's ability to do this. But we are biting off a bit more than is practical in the time we've got,” he says. "This is like a catering business. You expect 100 people and 200 show up.”

        7:34 p.m.: "Firebird Part I, Take 2,” Mr. Woods calls through a microphone to the stage, adding, "Not too slow.”

        Briefly, he's happy with what he hears. Then someone plays a wrong note; the bass drum sounds too loud in his earphones; another passage goes badly; the tempo seems slow again. Clearly, something is missing.

        "At this rate, we're not going to finish this first piece in three hours,” he moans. They are already behind schedule.

        Take 8. The orchestra starts to play the Berceuse, the quietest point in The Firebird. Mr. Woods turns to Mr. Russell. It's all he can do to control his type A personality, which is ready to explode.

        "They've got a massive page turn problem, don't they?” he says, clearly agitated. In Telarc's high-definition sound, every swish, squeak and sniff is heard.

        Meanwhile, the orchestra is navigating treacherous passages cleanly. This is not the kind of music you can cut and splice. As the piece ends, Mr. Jarvi leads a powerful crescendo on the last note. Mr. Woods calls for another break.

        Mr. Jarvi dashes in. "We're warming up,” he says, looking more pleased this time.

        8:19 p.m.: Mr. Woods stops the orchestra almost as soon as they begin. He calls to the stage, "It's all very aggressively played, but there's no color. The tempo's great, everything is great — but I need color. That's the only way I can describe it.”

        Being blunt is the only way to get a quick fix under the strict time constraints, he says later. "When I know there's a tempo that (Mr. Jarvi) wouldn't think is quite right when he hears the finished product — that's where the trust level comes in.”

        It's a collaboration, Mr. Jarvi says.

        "My job is to try to have some continuity and somehow see the bigger picture, so to speak,” Mr. Jarvi says. "It's really a collaborative effort in many ways, because everybody has their own task of what they need to take care of.”

        Take 11. The clocks are ticking. In the loud passages, the sound levels are going crazy. Technicians run from console to console.

        A flutist plays a solo passage. Mr. Woods and Jack Renner, chairman and chief recording engineer, look at each other knowingly. For a moment, they are with another orchestra, in a long-ago recording session. "Remember that mistake? It's funny how you remember things 24 years later,” Mr. Woods says, grinning.

        Later, he says, "Even though it's been 24 years since I recorded it with Robert Shaw in Atlanta, there are places I remember. I hear that flute part, and I was half expecting there to be a mistake. It cracked me up, and Jack noticed the same thing.”

        The final chord sounds — and cuts off quickly. There is no resonance. They try it again — and again.

        "It's like it runs out of gas. Whether it's the (acoustical) shell or the hall, it's too dry. It just dies, there's no ring,” Mr. Woods tells the musicians, puzzled.

        Onstage, Mr. Jarvi is telling his players to play with more bite, "real sfzorzato, hard!” he says.

        The third time, there is so much ring, it almost echoes.

        Mr. Renner and Mr. Woods laugh. "That was exactly what we needed. Unfortunately, on one channel we went over,” Mr. Woods says.

        The musicians groan audibly.

        9:26 p.m.: About 15 minutes of recording time remain. "We're running into overtime. We can't risk doing the next piece tomorrow,” says Mr. Woods, as he calls for a break. "If you're playing Jeu de cartes, get ready.”

        Mr. Jarvi dashes from the stage, remarking, "This is sounding great. I think we have it.” Someone finally brings him some cookies. That will be his dinner. He is beaming, but worried about time. It's as much about bottom line as about making music. Pressure and time. Time and money. He wants to do at least part of Jeu de cartes, Stravinsky's suite about a card game in three "deals” (movements).

        "Can't we just get in one deal?” he asks.

        CSO president Steven Monder, shaking his head, emerges from his office, and the three hold an impromptu conference as musicians hover nearby. Things are tense.

        "I think we should just go back to doing 33 1/3 records,” Mr. Monder says, eyeing all the high-tech equipment.

        Mr. Jarvi gets one "deal” — one movement — of Jeu de cartes. They do not go into overtime. But on Monday, it's scrapped so they can record the other two works. Jeu de cartes will have to wait for another album, another time.

        "The Firebird is in the top-20 popular classical pieces. So everybody knows it and the critics will be that much more severe. The reputation of the orchestra and Paavo hinges on what happens when we put this out,” Mr. Woods says.

        "We all walked in there scared. The orchestra was scared. They had given really good concerts. It's like, OK where can it go from here? It's very hard to go back and do that again.”

        Still, for the record mogul, it was history worth preserving.

        "I haven't been very excited about anything going on in the orchestra world for a number of years, at least in terms of new talent showing up. And here we have something that's very exciting,” he says.

        "Things are really good right now, but I have every suspicion that they're going to get even better.”

Q&A: Telarc exec likes Music Hall sound

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