Seattle Symphony’s Grammy Award–Winning Record Label is a Reputation-boosting Innovation

The labor of love is making waves in the industry.
Key players in the Seattle Symphony's recording venture are (left to right) CEO Simon Woods and Grammy-winning chief recording engineer Dmitriy Lipay.

Just as Benaroya Hall remains as a monument to Gerard Schwarz’s 26 seasons leading the Seattle Symphony Orchestra (SSO), current music director Ludovic Morlot also will leave a legacy before he steps down in June 2019—one that’s boosted the orchestra’s international profile and quickly become a priority for the institution. 

The SSO has long been involved with recording; Schwarz released 150 or so recordings, mostly on the Delos and Naxos labels. But in 2014, the orchestra took it a step further, launching its own label, Seattle Symphony Media (SSM); since then, the orchestra has earned nine Grammy nominations and its first wins, one each in 2016 and 2017 for SSM recordings of vividly colored, ear-entrancing music by French composer Henri Dutilleux. (A third Grammy, for 2015 Best Contemporary Classical Composition, went to the orchestra’s recording of John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean on a different label, Cantaloupe Music.) 

Credit for this success goes beyond the contributions of Morlot and the musicians and includes SSO president and CEO Simon Woods, who came to orchestral administration from a recording-industry background as a producer with EMI Classics in London, and to chief recording engineer Dmitriy Lipay, recipient of five of those Grammy noms and one win, for 2017 Best Surround Sound Album (for the third installment of a three-part Dutilleux series).

Having one’s own label has become not merely a reputation-boosting innovation, but a necessity. Gone are the days when top orchestras could count on a steady partnership with a major label to provide visibility and income. The San Francisco Symphony was the first to take its own reins, in 2001, and since then the list has grown to include some of the world’s most prestigious ensembles, including those that have built extensive and acclaimed major-label discographies, such as the orchestras of Berlin, Boston and Chicago.

Seattle Symphony music director and conductor Ludovic Morlot; photograph by Brandon Patoc

At a time when symphonies around the globe are seeking ways to attract new audiences, the benefits of an in-house label are multifold. 

As engineer, Lipay says it gives him more time to prepare for the recording, more flexibility for experimenting with microphone placements and different recording techniques, and for post-production work. “Knowing every musician and the specifics of their personal performance approach also helps.”

Woods cites the advantage of not having a record industry executive sign off on plans. “You can make all your recording decisions yourself as an organization and allow recordings to truly become…expressive of the organization’s individual artistic identity.”

For Morlot, it’s been establishing his vision for that identity, which has had two branches. One is music from France, which comes so naturally to the Lyon-born conductor. SSM’s first release offered the elegant, pastel music of Gabriel Fauré, and since then, scintillating performances of works by Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Camille Saint-Saëns and Edgard Varèse have been preserved. The label’s most recent release, in August, includes two works by Olivier Messiaen, including a performance of his 1944 Trois petites liturgies de la présence divine with the Northwest Boychoir in which sensuous harmonies, angelic voices and glittering percussion combine for a luscious aural experience. (Its 17th release, the Third and Fourth Symphonies by Danish composer Carl Nielsen, led by principal guest conductor—and Morlot's recently named successor as the orchestra’s next music director—Thomas Dausgaard, is due out this month.)

What’s more, carrying on the tradition of Schwarz—who brought a great deal of 20th-century American music into prominence—the SSO prioritizes music that no one else is recording. Works by American maverick Charles Ives, featured on three SSM discs so far, are a good example. His immense and madly complex Symphony No. 4 is both a musical and logistical challenge, requiring multiple conductors to lead different groupings of musicians playing in different tempos at once. Few orchestras accept this challenge for concert performances, much less for capturing on disc, but Morlot and Woods plan concert and recording repertory in sync so that SSM releases capture not only Benaroya Hall’s top-notch acoustics acting on these rarely performed works, but the electricity that results when playing them for a live audience.

The irony is that despite the success and acclaim of these recordings, they’re more a labor of love and a reputation-building device than a revenue stream. “In today’s world, there is almost no money to be made in classical recordings—for most orchestras, it actually costs us to release recordings,” Woods says. “Once you make that fundamental realization, it becomes evident that it’s more effective to control your own recording destiny.” 

Seattle Symphony Media recordings are available as digital downloads and CDs through all streaming services and most online music retailers, including iTunes, Amazon, Primephonic and Acoustic Sounds

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