The Road to a Grammy Nomination
By: Edna Landau
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Gloria Cheng has always impressed me as someone with very high standards, impeccable taste, and an unerring sense of how to do something correctly. Add to those qualities brilliant artistry, keen intelligence, an inquisitive mind, and a soft-spoken endearing presence coupled with steely determination, and one begins to understand how this artist has won a Grammy (Best Instrumental Soloist Performance, 2009) and been nominated for another (Best Classical Instrumental Solo, 2013) without the benefit of a manager or being signed to a record label. Heartened by this realization, I asked Gloria if she would walk me through the process of creating her latest Grammy-nominated disc, The Edge of Light, from its conceptualization through its release. It is my hope that sharing what I learned will give encouragement to young musicians who would benefit from making recordings but who are still waiting for someone else to take the first step.
My first question to Gloria was why she chose to record music of Kaija Saariaho and Olivier Messiaen. She told me that when she was an orchestral substitute with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and appeared regularly on their Green Umbrella series, Ms. Saariaho was a frequent visitor, as works of hers were held in high regard and performed by the orchestra and its music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen. Gloria was intrigued by the composer and made a point of getting to know her and her music, in particular, her electronic music which she found bold and daring. She began to wonder how she might write for solo piano. A compelling example materialized in the form of a ballade, commissioned in 2005 by Emanuel Ax as part of his larger exploration of this musical form. This Ballade and Ms. Saariaho’s Prelude, written a year later, received their first recorded performances on Gloria’s disc. She is particularly honored that the composer chose to attend the recording sessions. Messiaen is a composer who has figured frequently in Gloria’s concert programs over the years. She saw a kinship in the thinking of these two composers and when she approached Ms. Saariaho to ask about it, she in fact confirmed that Messiaen had been one of her major inspirations. The idea of pairing these two composers now became a plan, with the eight Messiaen preludes (1929) joining the repertoire to be recorded. There was one small challenge still to overcome – the imbalance of 35 minutes of music by Messiaen and only a little over eleven minutes of Saariaho. Knowing that Messiaen had written a work for piano and string quartet (1991) and that Kaija Saariaho had written Je Sens un deuxième Coeur for piano, viola and cello, she invited her good friends and frequent collaborators, The Calder Quartet, to join her in recording these works.
Gloria has never been interested in producing and packaging her own albums. Her earlier recordings were produced and released by Telarc, which had largely wound down its classical recording activities. She knew of Robina Young, Vice President/Artistic Director and legendary producer of Harmonia Mundi USA, through a mutual friend who was happy to assist with an introduction. Although Gloria must have felt nervous walking into the meeting, she was put at ease when Ms. Young said that she had been following her recordings over the years. Gloria appears to have been beautifully prepared for the meeting. She came armed with all of the timings for the music to be recorded and was bolstered by having Kaija Saariaho’s blessing to record her works. She knew that she had a valid concept for the recording and that her most important role was “to speak of the project with love.” She also guessed correctly that the involvement of the excellent Calder Quartet would be a plus. Ms. Young agreed to the proposal, but with the proviso that Gloria would deliver a finished master to Harmonia Mundi, a condition that has become quite common in the recording world today. Gloria quickly proceeded to secure the services of the highly acclaimed recording engineer, Judith Sherman. An additional touch of class was lent to the album when Harmonia Mundi agreed to Gloria’s choice of Peter Sellars to write the liner notes. Her relationship with him also dated from her days as a performer with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and as he had directed operas by both composers, she knew he was the perfect choice. It was actually Mr. Sellars who came up with the title of the album after Gloria told him that it seemed to her as if the music was transforming in some way from sound into color and light.
Gloria devised a budget for the entire album and it came to $15,000 (including hall rental, piano moving and tuning, guest artist fees and expenses, engineering and editing costs, and production of the master). She didn’t feel comfortable mounting a Kickstarter campaign and chose instead to tap into her network of friends and supporters who had come to her concerts over the years, or given donations to organizations with whom she appeared regularly. Knowing that tax deductions could be a significant incentive to donors, she arranged to have Piano Spheres (of whom she has been a performing member for 20 years) act as fiscal sponsor, with the understanding that they would receive a cut from the funds raised. Her next step was to approach dear friends to see if they would host a concert in support of her recording. They had just built a beautiful home and Gloria had helped them choose a Steinway piano. They immediately said yes. The cost of admission was set at $200. One guest contributed $5000. The Calder Quartet graciously agreed to participate and the concert was a complete success. All contributors received thank you notes and, subsequent to the record release, were sent signed cd’s. Following the concert, Gloria was only $1500 short of her financial goal. She secured a small grant from UCLA (where she is on the faculty) and contributed the remainder herself. Gloria was deeply touched by the generosity of her supporters, some of whom she didn’t know personally, and wrote an additional round of thank you notes when the recording was nominated for a Grammy.
I asked René Goiffon, president of Harmonia Mundi USA, about the elements of Gloria’s proposal that had been compelling to them and that had engendered the trust they felt in entering into a special arrangement with her. Apart from citing her wonderful artistry, he said: “Gloria is a good example of an artist who has her stuff together. She is very thorough and driven, and brought in the Calder Quartet (a hot property now), as well as Peter Sellars to write the liner notes. She was able to organize a fundraising party, hosted by an attorney with access to many people of means who are interested in the arts. The whole package was there and it was very well formed.”
My last question of Harmonia Mundi concerned the process by which Gloria’s recording of rather esoteric repertoire succeeded in attracting enough attention to capture a Grammy nomination. I suggested that maybe the label’s superlative reputation for top quality could have been a factor. While he didn’t deny that, both Mr. Goiffon and Robina Young commented that as a past Grammy Award winner, Gloria already had a boost in visibility among the voting members of The Recording Academy. It is standard procedure for a recording company to submit their recordings to the Academy for initial consideration. In addition, Harmonia Mundi makes the music available for streaming and features the release in their newsletter. It is then in the hands of the Academy’s voting members to determine the short list of nominations. That is where all of Gloria’s hard work during the course of her career to date paid off. Thankfully, it would appear that the votes are being cast by an increasingly knowledgeable and discerning group of advocates for top quality performances of a wide variety of repertoire, regardless of its general popularity. This bodes well for the future and should give hope to present and future recording artists that there is a level playing field, and that the results of their efforts stand an equitable chance of receiving this important form of industry recognition.
© Edna Landau 2014