Marking a quarter century in the classical music world
I’m not sure why, but I distinctly remember signing a form in the human resources department at PolyGram records (the company that preceded Universal Music in owning and distributing the Deutsche Grammophon, Decca and Philips labels, among others) on my first day on the job, and dated the form September 27, 1987. That means that this month I reach the quarter-century mark in my work in the music business.
I feel lucky beyond measure to have had the career that I have had thus far. I never studied music, and possess only a modest ability to read music and play the piano (entirely self-taught on both fronts). It was the pure joy and excitement that I felt hearing classical music that drew me to my work and gave me the opportunities that I have had.
I’ve only worked for two companies over the past 25 years. As I have recounted many times, it was a performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic that convinced me that I just had to work for a record company – particularly for the company that was recording Bernstein’s Mahler at that time: Deutsche Grammophon. 12 years later I left Universal Music and co-founded 21C Media Group. I have worked insane hours for both companies, but the reason I have stayed so dedicated to my work is simple: for me, artists and composers are my heroes, and the music they make, a priceless gift, is nothing less than a life force, the very language of the spirit.
There have been so many unforgettable experiences along the way, but even now there’s something surreal about having had the experience of working close up with so many of the most important artists of our time. What an adventure! I had the chance to chat at length with Leonard Bernstein – about Mahler no less – on several occasions and will never forget the way that he framed why music is important. Several times I sat in recording sessions with Pierre Boulez and had the luxury of time with him afterwards over dinner to discuss the repertoire he was focusing on and what he sought to achieve his own music. He described one of his works as 'controlled delirium', but in person he was calm, kind, thoughtful and attentive.
I only heard Herbert von Karajan live one time. Late in his life, he led the Vienna Philharmonic in Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony at Carnegie Hall. I had a high fever but had no intention of missing what turned out to be one of the most powerful experiences I have ever had hearing an orchestra. He walked with great difficulty at that time, and when he took his final bow they simply opened the doors on the left side of the stage and he stood there motionless while the crowd roared. I managed to catch two live performances by the legendary Carlos Kleiber. He led unforgettable performances of La bohème and then Der Rosenkavalier at the Metropolitan Opera. There was simply nothing like the electricity that man could bring to a theatre.
Watching, and helping in, the transformation of young and unknown artists into stars has always been one of the most thrilling aspects of the work that I do. In three short years working with the young Gil Shaham, we watched a talented youngster became a young American master. How wonderful it was a few months ago when a friend brought to my attention Gil’s amazing – and way ahead of its time – video of the 'Winter' movement from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I hadn’t seen the video since I watched a copy on VHS, but suddenly, on YouTube, it had more than 200,000 views! My best friend, Glenn Petry – another co-founder of 21C Media Group – and my long-time colleague Wende Persons, who works with us now, produced that video for Deutsche Grammophon back in 1995, and it sparked the kind of extensive media coverage then that only a Hollywood scandal could rival today. I honestly think it remains one of the handsomest classical music videos out there: watch it on YouTube.
One of the funniest images I have in my mind is what Tower Records’ Lincoln Center location looked like after they took in their first order of the original – and now famous – 'Three Tenors' album. They purchased so many copies from me that there were literally stacks of boxed CDs in the bathrooms. Those CD boom days sure were fun, but they didn’t last all that long.
I have extraordinary memories of virtually all of the artists I have worked with that I will never forget, but in the interest of keeping this post to a reasonable length, I’d like to mention one more thing. Given that a Mahler performance by the New York Philharmonic quite literally changed my life, the fact that I now represent the current music director of the orchestra, Alan Gilbert, and am seeing the life of a big-orchestra music director from such a close-up perspective, is an experience I could have never dreamed of having when I first started in this field. The New York Philharmonic plays in a hall less than two blocks from my apartment on West 65th Street, a street that was officially designated 'Leonard Bernstein Place' some years following his death. This all leads me to believe that some fate was at work along the way.
Unlike many industry observers, I’ve never done much handwringing about 'the future of classical music.' Times may be tough now for opera companies and orchestras and many record companies, and music criticism has an increasingly tenuous place in a world where newspapers are struggling to survive and reinvent themselves. But I find it impossible to think that something as inherently life-affirming as great music will not find a way to endure.
People who love classical music, both those who work in the field and those in the audience, bring a passion that is truly rare; for many, it approaches a religious fervour. But unlike religion, music is, by its nature, all-inclusive and all-embracing.
It crosses geographical borders and age barriers, and speaks in a language that all are capable of understanding. Elitism, real and perceived, creeps in when ticket prices becomes unaffordable to the average person (that same point can obviously apply to the rock or pop star who gauges his or her fans), but in recent years classical music has found a life in bars and clubs that previously catered exclusively to the alternative music crowd.
I do sometimes wish it were easier to place a story about classical musicians on American television and in mainstream media publications, and I certainly wish that having a secure future for music education in the schools was a no-brainer. But right now, just about everything that is good and important and worthwhile is under siege – perhaps most alarmingly, our increasingly compromised environment. The world is a busy, complicated and confusing place. There are pressures on limited resources, and people have been suffering through one of the toughest economic periods since the Great Depression. These are tough times, but all the more reason to fight for the things that matter.
Like the seasons, the world of classical music goes through cycles of shut down and rebirth, of retrenchment and growth. But every season there is an artist or two that captures the imagination, a composer who forges a new and compelling sound, a small record company – or even a big one – that produces an essential recording, an arts organization that presents something that redefines what classical music is capable of doing and achieving. Operas are playing to crowded audiences in movie theatres, and countless hours of great music is available on line, sometimes for free and often for download. There just may be as many hopeful signs out there as there are causes for concern.
I don’t necessarily see a boom time for classical music ahead, but neither do I see a bust. More importantly, I don’t ever see Beethoven’s message waning, or Messiaen’s visions fading, or Verdi’s passion fleeting or Nielsen’s idealism dissipating, or brave composers of our own time abandoning their inherent need to express themselves. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once wrote that 'In a world become a desert, we thirst for comradeship'. In such a world, we will always thirst for music.
Albert Imperato is co-founder of 21C Media Group, a classical music and performing arts PR, marketing and consulting firm. His on-line journal gives a window into the New York music world, as seen through the eyes of a leading PR guru.