Independent Labels Embrace a D.I.Y. Ethos

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The New York Times
Steve Smith
December 21, 2008

The major classical recording labels, a few notable exceptions aside, seemed determined to continue their march toward irrelevance and oblivion this year. For independent outfits the prognosis was better: The budget-priced Naxos reigned supreme, while hardy concerns like Hyperion, Kairos, Testament and Bridge produced invaluable offerings. But some of the most robust activity in 2008 involved labels operated by those with the most to gain: musicians, orchestras, composers.

New Amsterdam, a feisty upstart run by the young composers William Brittelle, Judd Greenstein and Sarah Kirkland Snider, elbowed its way among established contemporary-music labels like Bang on a Can's Cantaloupe and Philip Glass's Orange Mountain Music. Alia Vox, operated by the great Spanish viol player Jordi Savall, continued to set the standard in the early-music field with a steady stream of exemplary performances, lavishly packaged.

Orchestras in Chicago, London, Amsterdam and elsewhere independently produced recordings that would once have been the stuff of major-label releases. The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra's label, Arch Media, issued CDs of archival material but also offered MP3 downloads of recent performances conducted by David Robertson: a live-wire account of John Adams's Harmonielehre and a lush pairing of
Szymanowski's Violin Concerto (with Christian Tetzlaff as the soloist)and Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy.

Going with the flow, this month the Boston Symphony Orchestra announced its own ambitious digital initiative. A dozen archival radio recordings are available as MP3s through the orchestra's Web site. But in February the Boston Symphony intends to start issuing fresh performances led by James Levine in a lossless HD Surround format: a new high for downloads. You have to hope that some of the significant contemporary works Mr. Levine has introduced - by Elliott Carter, Charles Wuorinen, John Harbison and others - will factor into the planning.

For inspiration the Boston Symphony might look to the efforts of a neighbor, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, whose new BMOP/sound label is an example of everything done right. Inaugurated in March with a superb recording of Mr. Harbison's epic Ulysses, the label has released seven impressive sets, all but one conducted by Gil Rose, the ensemble's energetic artistic director.

Concentrating so far on composers with ties to Boston, BMOP/sound has embraced a refreshing range of styles, including Michael Gandolfi's eclectic modernism, Gunther Schuller's stylish classical-jazz hybrids and Charles Fussell's ravishing neo-Romanticism. Distinctively packaged and smartly annotated, these eminently desirable discs augur a catalog likely to be as precious as that of another orchestra-run initiative, the Louisville Orchestra's pioneering First Edition series.

© Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company