February 7, 2015
Tom Keogh / Seattle Times
The SSO is up for six awards, a remarkable achievement for just one season in the orchestra’s discography. The symphony is no stranger to the nominations — it garnered 12 nominations in its entire history but no wins. (Pearl Jam and Dave Matthews Band have been nominated 14 and 12 times, respectively.)
The nominations center on two releases: “John Luther Adams: Become Ocean,” on the Cantaloupe Music label, and works by Henri Dutilleux, the first on SSO’s new label, Seattle Symphony Media. Dutilleux (1916-2013) is a special favorite of music director Ludovic Morlot, who has championed the French composer’s work since arriving in Seattle in 2011.
“Become Ocean,” commissioned by SSO, won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2014, capping an already remarkable run for the orchestra-composer partnership. The work’s world premiere was at Benaroya Hall, and its second coming-out party, at the Spring for Music fest at Carnegie Hall, was met with critical acclaim.
The half-dozen nominations this year partly reflect outside admiration for a growing, reinvigorated institution firing on all cylinders in the Morlot era, says Simon Woods, SSO’s executive director. The orchestra, like most of its brethren in the U.S., is seeking new audiences and a more dynamic profile through performances outside the standard repertoire and with special programs, such as collaborations with pop and rock musicians, commissions of new works and late-night informal concerts in Benaroya Hall’s lobby.
“We seem to be on a roll,” says Woods, who joined the symphony the same year that Morlot did, 2011. “The Pulitzer, the Grammys, 3 million views on YouTube (from the 2014 Sonic Evolution concert with Sir Mix-A-Lot), ticket sales being the best they’ve been in quite a few years. The context for the nominations is a combination of elements, including those two remarkable CD releases, one of them launching our own label. The Grammys have often favored orchestra labels.
“It was time for some great recognition for Seattle Symphony.”
The Symphony — founded in 1903 — received its first Grammy nominations in 1989, all for works by Howard Hanson under then-music director Gerard Schwarz. Another nine Grammy nominations followed during Schwarz’s 26 years as music director, the last in 2008.
“If you go back 25 years, Seattle Symphony was a regional orchestra,” says Woods. “Over the last couple of decades, it became a highly recognized national force. Now we’re trying to take it to the next level, getting international recognition for the orchestra’s high quality of music-making. The nominations are extremely exciting.”
The three Grammy nominations for the Hanson recordings were, at least in part, a recognition of Schwarz’s contributions to SSO’s growth. The orchestra became a prolific recording ensemble, with more than 100 commercial recordings under his baton, and an advocate for 20th-century composers like Hanson.
“I hope (the nominations) mean we’re on the right track to make some beautiful projects with what we started,” says Morlot. “Having this amazing spotlight on the successful CD release of ‘Become Ocean’ brought a lot of attention to all we are doing. Even more important is releasing a recording produced on our own label and getting so much industry notice for it.”
If Grammy nominations — and possible wins — are an acknowledgment of an orchestra’s accomplishments, do they also, bluntly, help the bottom line?
“The fact is there’s very little money to be made in classical recordings,” says Woods, who worked for nine years as a record producer at EMI Classical. “The classical music recording business is about prestige and recognition. So I think the nominations cement something which we’re hearing around the business, which is, wow, things are really happening in Seattle.”
Osmo Vänskä, music director of the Minnesota Orchestra and recipient of last year’s Grammy for best orchestral performance for a recording of Jean Sibelius symphonies, believes an award is always good for profits.
“I’m sure the CD is selling more because of it. It’s obvious when there are 10 recordings of the same piece, and one has won a Grammy, of course it leads people to buy that. It’s also easier to sell the orchestra to a festival when there is a Grammy.”
There are broader consequences of Grammy recognition for a symphony orchestra, particularly in furthering an artistic mission and in cultivating community support. In Seattle, Grammy love is further emboldening SSO’s adventurous programming.
“It gives you more freedom to take risks and do things you really believe in,” says Morlot.
“We’re increasingly seeing more great artists who actively want to come here and play, because they know we have a great orchestra and audience,” Woods says. “But every year we have to raise an enormous amount of money. People give money to an organization because they’re proud of the statement it makes about Seattle.
“We’re a great city. The more we generate an international reputation, the more we contribute to the wider picture,” Wood says.