Feature: Cedille Records Celebrates 30 Years of Illuminating Chicago’s Art Music Scene
This year marks a milestone for the Chicago classical music community. In 1989 Jim Ginsburg founded Cedille Records, and, in the ensuing 30 years, this independent label has produced nearly 200 releases of music made by performers and composers that call the Chicago area their home. In doing so, Cedille has given an outlet to the members of a community brimming with talent that has largely been ignored by other record labels.
In a lengthy interview, Ginsburg talked about the label he started and still leads today. He explained his motivation for starting the label and the impact it has had on our community. We talked about several of the recordings Cedille (pronounced “Say-DEE”) has released and the artists it has introduced. We discussed how Chicago’s classical music scene has evolved and why it so vibrant today. We also discussed his own musical upbringing as the son of sitting Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
In the 1980s, Ginsburg enjoyed the performers he heard in the many concerts he attended in Chicago. But when he tried to purchase recordings of these ensembles, he was struck by the fact that nothing was available. As he explained, “Being in Chicago, I noticed all of the terrific performers that I would hear in live concerts and on live broadcasts from WFMT. When I went to the record store, back when they actually had record stores, like Rose Records, … they were literally not represented. This was the late 1980s, and pretty much the only classical recording activity in Chicago was the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and George Solti.”
Ginsburg surmised that “all of these other wonderful artists were being completely ignored by national and international labels, which tended to be based either in New York or on the west coast.” Scanning the label landscape, he “saw a niche to be filled by recording these artists, and establishing Cedille as the first Chicago-based classical label since Mercury Living Presence in the 1950s.”
In becoming a music producer, Ginsburg benefited from having reviewed classical records for the America Record Guide for many years. With that experience, he explained, “I really could see the difference between a well-produced and not-so-well produced recording, so I also wanted to enter the fray from that point of view because I thought I had the skills to make some pretty well-produced recordings.”
Cedille’s very first CD was Dmitry Paperno performing a collection of Russian piano music. As Ginsburg describes, Paperno “was a significant recording artist in the Soviet Union, but when he came to Chicago in the late 1970s, he made two recordings on LP for Musical Heritage Society that legendary WFMT producer and program director Norm Pellegrini had produced. Ten years later, when I approached him, he hadn’t made another recording. This was a chance to get him back in the studio and back in front of listeners outside of Chicago.” Paperno has gone on to record many releases for Cedille.
Since that first CD of a Chicago-based performer with many previous recordings to his credit, Cedille has issued debut recordings by many Chicago artists, such as Pacifica Quartet and Eighth Blackbird. Other artists, such as Rachel Barton Pine and Jennifer Koh, had done recordings on other labels, but have become staples on Cedille. Many releases have been nominated for Grammy Awards, and several have won. These included four different releases by Eighth Blackbird and Third Coast Percussion’s recording of music by Steve Reich. Cedille has also premiered many new works by Chicago’s contemporary composers.
In choosing what to produce, Cedille often focuses on music by composers that are less frequently recorded. Ginsburg recalled the release that generated their first Grammy nomination, a recording with Rachel Barton Pine. “After she had done a few recordings with us, she wanted to do a repertory work, which was certainly understandable given where she was in her career.” The work she chose was the Brahms Violin Concerto. As a former music reviewer, he considered the idea from the perspective of the listener. When Pine presented the idea, Ginsburg replied, “Ok, if you want to record the Brahms concerto, how can you make this really stand out and not just be Brahms and another repertory concerto?” To that, she came up with a “brilliant idea”: the Concerto in a Hungarian Style by Joseph Joachim, the violinist for whom Brahms actually wrote his concerto.
Ginsburg explained, “This Joachim concerto is a monster of a piece. It’s over 45 minutes long; it’s impossible to play for both soloist and orchestra alike. It’s almost never done and almost never recorded. So, here’s a chance to make a recording that both makes programmatic sense and really brings attention to a terrific piece that one critic called the holy grail of Romantic violin concertos.” As good as the programming choices and performances were, what got noticed by the Grammy Awards was the production. “I’m particularly proud that, as wonderful as the performances are, the category we actually got nominated for was the engineering. It was nominated for best engineering of a classical recording that year.” Recording quality is something Cedille takes very seriously.
That CD was one of only two Cedille releases that featured the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. As a non-profit label, Cedille does not routinely have access to sufficient resources to pay an ensemble as large and established as the CSO. The nonprofit status came about early in Cedille’s history. Ginsburg started funding the label with his own personal savings, but, “With our specific focus on less known Chicago artists and also generally on repertoire that isn’t the standard repertoire, this was never likely to be a money-making venture.” He noted that classical music was rarely a source of profit for the major labels; rather, it was more a matter of prestige. “Every once in a while they’d stumble on a hit like The Three Tenors and spend the next 30 years trying to recreate the lightning in the bottle, which never is a good business strategy…” As it happened, he observed, “The number of recordings that probably turned a profit on their own is maybe one or two in our catalogue.”
Within a couple of years of founding the label, Ginsburg recognized that, “to sustain it, it was always going to be a question of what could I bring in other than revenues from sales? Our mission made that possible. I knew I would have to develop a reputation by putting out some really great recordings first, before I could then say to people, hey, this was something worth supporting.” He got some advice from Herman Krawitz, who ran the not-for-profit New World Records. “Putting that all together, after a few years of putting out recordings on a shoestring budget, I decided to take the step of turning Cedille Records not-for-profit. Getting some important people on the board like then-CSO President Henry Fogel gave us instant credibility. Once we were able to raise money directly for our mission and our projects, that’s what allowed us to go from a label that started doing solo keyboard for the first 9 of 10 records, to a label that does everything from symphonies and operas, works for chorus and orchestra, as well as chamber music and solo music.”
As a non-profit, independent label, Cedille Records has produced 186 releases of music produced in-house. Ginsburg noted that, “We also have a subsidiary, mid-priced line that we call Cedille FOUNDation, with ‘FOUND’ in capital letters because it’s things … that we didn’t produce ourselves, as is the case with almost everything else in our catalogue.” Also available are a few budget priced compilations. “If you throw them altogether it’s over 190 releases. We should be at 200 by the end of this year….” Ginsburg is very proud of the fact that everything on the label is available for purchase; nothing has gone out-of-print.
All of Cedille’s releases are available in digital formats: CDs, MP3s, streaming and other electronic forms. While vinyl records have recently made a comeback, Cedille has largely stayed away. When asked about it, Ginsburg demurred. “We did, at Eighth Blackbird’s request, a vinyl release of one of their albums, a Grammy winner. It went nowhere, which doesn’t really surprise. I’ve always been committed to digital. I like the extra 30 dB of dynamic range, and I like the lack of surface noise.” He laughed at that point, recognizing that scratches and pops on vinyl records had once been the bane of a classical music lover’s existence. “There were a lot of issues in the early days when LP recordings were not being re-mastered properly for CD release. That’s why CDs got a bad reputation sonically. I’ve always thought digital, when done right, is the superior medium.”
In 30 years technology has not stood still. Ginsburg observed that “downloads are kind of on the way out because people want higher quality. If you want higher quality you get it on CD or high resolution downloads, or alternatively, you have streaming. Anybody who wants to listen through their computer can go through streaming. The rationale for downloads is diminishing.” Several of Cedille’s releases have benefited from streaming, especially baroque music. Individual tracks get picked up on Spotify playlists. Last year’s release of songs pertaining to his mother, Notorious RBG in Song, was the biggest selling CD in 2018, but physical CDs and downloads/streaming have different sales paths.
In terms of classical ensemble makeup and music formats, Cedille Records offers a complete picture. Its first opera recording, from 1997, involved soprano Patrice Michaels, who later became Ginsburg’s wife. In keeping with Cedille’s mission of recording music outside of the standard repertoire, “We got to make the first recording in a quarter century and the first recording ever on CD of John Carlo Menotti’s wonderful opera The Medium, with Chicago Opera Theater.” He especially loves the way it was staged, “I got to essentially stage the opera for microphones.”
The story line of the opera involves a medium who goes crazy and makes up fake séances with her daughter making up stories, but she ends up actually hearing these things in her head. “Because it’s a ghost story piece,” Ginsburg explained, there are “all kinds of wonderful effects, at least there should be.” Noting that the most recent recording from 1970 did not include the sound effects, he recalled, “We had great fun with the pulling down of the curtain, the knocking over of the bottle, and knocking on the door and the turning of the lock, and the ghost sounds themselves.” The Medium was a “really fun recording to produce, and one of our best sellers as well.”
Ginsburg is also proud of the fact that Cedille Records has made the world premier recording of over 250 works. Noting that contemporary music can turn audiences off, he explained, “One thing I try to do is work with composers who find ways to write engaging music that is both challenging and engaging to the audiences.” He pointed to Stacy Garrop, a Chicago-based composer, and Valerie Coleman, a member of Imani Winds. “On our May release with the Chicago Sinfonietta is … Winged Creatures by Michael Abels. … We’ve done a number of pieces by him, and he’s now getting noticed because he wrote the music for the films Get Out and US.”
Most of the music premiered on Cedille is contemporary, but some are historical. Ginsburg pointed out that, “Another Rachel Barton Pine recording combines Beethoven’s violin concerto with one by Franz Clement, the violinist for whom Beethoven wrote his piece—a concerto from 1805 that had never been recorded.”
The conversation shifted to the classical music scene in Chicago, which, Ginsburg explained, “is special because it’s both a huge center of classical music, but, at the same time, I think there’s a real collaborative spirit to it. The recent Ear Taxi Festival is a perfect illustration of it.” Unlike the New York scene, which he characterized as an “every-man-for-himself, very competitive atmosphere …, here people really like to work together, cross over, do projects jointly….It’s the best of both worlds. To a record label, that means we have this huge pool of talent to draw from.” Aside from the CSO, which now has its own label, he observed that, “we’re still the main game in town for recording.”
Ginsburg also reflected on how the Chicago classical music scene has changed during Cedille Record’s 30 years of existence. “We’ve had tremendous change and growth … on both ends of the spectrum.… On the one end, you have the changeover and evolution of our early music scene while the players keep getting better and better. On the other end of the spectrum is the tremendous growth in our contemporary scene. I’m so proud that Eighth Blackbird and Third Coast Percussion, and others like Fifth House Ensemble have turned to Cedille to get the word out about their great music.”
He related how Cedille Records had contributed to the early music scene in Chicago when Rachel Barton Pine started with the label. While recording violin concertos by black composers, she recorded Handel sonatas with complete continuo, which led to the formation of Trio Settecento, with David Schrader on harpsichord and John Mark Rozendaal on cello, dedicated to performing the baroque repertoire. Ginsburg is proud of the role Cedille Records played in that ensemble’s emergence.
This brought up the question: what does an emerging artist or ensemble have to do to gain Cedille’s attention? The answer was simple: “Propose a project. We get probably 50 proposals a year now, and we put out eight or nine releases. There’s a lot of competition, and there are, of course, a lot of artists we’re committed to. Every year there’s likely to be a release by Eighth Blackbird and Rachel Barton Pine, who sometimes skips a year and does two the next year.”
Cedille Records tries to introduce one or two new artists every year. To that end, as part of its 30th anniversary celebration, it has instituted the Emerging Artist Competition for local solo performers 35 years old or under, or ensembles with an average age of 35 or under. Submissions are due August 1, 2019. For more information, here is the link.
Three recent releases on Cedille Records encapsulate the tendencies of a Cedille release. In April Cedille issued Alex Klein’s Twentieth Century Oboe Sonatas. Formerly the principal oboist of the CSO, Klein recorded six sonatas by European composers with pianist Phillip Bush. These works span a range of emotions and feelings and shed light on an ensemble arrangement that gets little attention. The release includes sonatas by Henri Dutilleux, Francis Poulenc, and Camille Saint-Saëns. In 2004 Klein recorded 20th century oboe concertos for a Cedille release.
Another new release is Project W: Works by Diverse Women Composers, Chicago Sinfonietta’s effort to highlight women composers. Conducted by music director Me-Ann Chen, Project W presents world premiere recordings of newly commissioned works by American composers Jennifer Higdon, Clarice Assad, Jessie Montgomery, and Reena Esmail. These composers come from very diverse backgrounds. For example, Assad was born in Rio de Janeiro and is known as a scat vocalist. Now a Chicago resident, she is the daughter of guitarist Sergio Assad. Esmail is a Chicago native who draws from her Hindustani roots from northern India.
Before getting to music by these composers, however, Project W offers the orchestral transcription of Dances in the Canebrakes by longtime Chicago resident Florence Price. Written as piano pieces at the end of her life in 1953, this suite of dances, based on African American themes, was transcribed for orchestra shortly thereafter by William Grant Still, the leading black composer of that time.
A third new release captures in a single place all the things that make Cedille Records so special. Ascent highlights the viola, a dark-hued instrument that gets little attention in the classical music oeuvre. On Ascent, violist Matthew Lipman and pianist Henry Kramer perform a collection of duos for these two instruments. In addition to rarely performed music by mainstream 19th century composer Robert Schumann, this release has two world premier recordings: a once-lost work by 20th century composer Dmitri Shostakovich and a new work Lipman commissioned by Clarice Assad, whose work was also performed on Project W. The release closes with the premiere recording on viola and piano of Franz Waxman’s virtuoso violin and piano arrangement, Carmen Fantasie, which the Hollywood composer based on Bizet’s opera. Ginsburg noted that Lipman played the violin part on a viola, which is quite a feat. Perhaps most significantly, Ascent highlights Lipman, a native Chicagoan who was a product of the Music Institute of Chicago.
Last year’s big Cedille release was Notorious RBG in Song, which grew out of material written for the 80th birthday party of Jim Ginsburg’s mother, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “Obviously that’s a very special and unusual project for us,” he reflected, “but what I love about it is how organically it grew.” His wife, soprano Patrice Michaels, had been composing in college and graduate school but chose to focus her career as a vocalist. Ginsburg explained, “Her plan had always been to get back to composing when her performing career was over. But she was getting to the point now where, because her voice is so durable, she decided not to wait any longer to get back to composing. The perfect opportunity came up at my mother’s 80th birthday.”
For this birthday party, Ginsburg and his sister got the idea of commissioning three women composers to write songs based on letters and other texts associated with his mother. Patrice Michaels was one of the composers chosen. Upon later reviewing the source material, she got the idea to compose a substantial song cycle, The Long View: A Portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Nine Songs. As Jim Ginsburg described, “That original song actually became the middle song in the cycle, number five out of nine— and, of course, it had to be nine for the obvious reason. She writes the cycle and had the idea of just making an archival recording herself.” Instead, Ginsburg offered to produce it in the hope that it would be of some interest. Kuang-Hao Huang was on the piano.
In addition to Michaels’ song cycle, Notorius RBG in Song includes the two other songs commissioned for Justice Ginsburg’s 80th birthday party, Stacy Garrop’s My Dearest Ruth and Vivan Fung’s Pot Roast à la RBG. “The show stopper at the end is the big aria from the operetta Scalia/Ginsburg,” said Ginsburg. That operetta documented the deep friendship that arose between two ideological foes on the Supreme Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the late Justice Antonin Scalia.
Ginsburg noted that, “Eventually, it was of more than just a little interest,” as Notorious RBG in Song took on a life of its own. “It was actually our best-selling physical CD last year.… And now, Patrice has turned it into a one-woman show with projections and narration in between the songs with music composed underneath. There are versions for different singers of the nine songs and there’s a choral version of one of the songs as well. It was just done for the first time with multiple instruments, not just piano, in Washington, DC, where my mother was in attendance.” Ginsburg is especially pleased that Michaels is getting noticed as a composer and has received commissions. It illustrates a big part of Cedille’s mission: “promoting the work and careers of our artists, so that this recording project has now turned into a show and there have already been performances in Los Angeles, Washington DC, and Cleveland.” Michaels will be performing Notorious RBG in Song this Sunday, May 19, at the Spertus Institute, 610 S. Michigan Ave, 2pm. Information may be found here.
The conversation shifted to Ginsburg’s own musical development growing up in New York. “There was always music in the household, and I was introduced to music at a very early age,” Ginsburg recalled. His parents used to take him to the Little Orchestra Society that played at Hunter College, and he enjoyed the New York Philharmonic’s Young Peoples’ Concerts conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. “I just soaked it all up,” he recalled. “I listened to my parents’ records like the Toscanini Beethoven recordings, and very quickly by age seven I was starting my own record collection.” His parents moved to Washington, DC, when he was 15, and he got involved with the Washington Opera. He took piano lessons for many years, and finally gave it up after his first year in college. Dmitri Paperno, the first performer on a Cedille release, was his last piano teacher. Ginsburg came here to attend the University of Chicago.
As our conversation ended, Ginsburg reflected on the role Cedille has played from the artists’ point of view. “What I love most about this is the value that the artists see in what we do for them because we wouldn’t be doing it otherwise. And giving them this platform both as an artistic outlet for them being able to put their stamp on the repertoire in a way you can’t in a single performance and the way the recordings get them noticed in terms of their careers.” He is very pleased in the role that his label has played in the development and success of many very talented artists in Chicago.
Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by becoming a patron. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!