A Most Unusual Recording
By: Edna Landau
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One morning last week, while waking up to radio station WQXR, I heard the announcer introduce a nocturne by Ottorino Respighi, which he said was part of their featured album of the week. I had never heard it before and was spellbound by the beautiful playing. The pianist was Michael Landrum, also totally unknown to me. I decided I needed to know more about the two-cd set entitled Nocturnes and, a few hours later, began to research the recording. I learned that it contained 32 nocturnes by 31 different composers, among them two women – Clara Wieck-Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel. I also learned that the pianist is Professor of Music at Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester, New York, and that he has long been fascinated by nocturnes and the way different composers have approached them. I decided to call Dr. Landrum in hopes of finding out more about the evolution of this project, what drove him to make the recording, and what effect it has had on his professional career. It was quite easy to get through to him via the school’s music department and after leaving a message, my call was returned later the same day. The conversation proved every bit as rewarding as listening to his wonderful recording (which I bought the same day). Having assumed that he made the recording to get his name out to a broader musical community, I learned that his motivation was not that at all. He made the recording because he loved the music and realized that so much of it is unknown (e.g., nocturnes by Griffes and Tcherepnin). He felt that he would be making a contribution in his own small way by sharing it with a larger audience.
Since I know how difficult it is for performers to find time to research unusual repertoire, I asked Dr. Landrum how he succeeded in assembling such a rich and varied collection of nocturnes. He told me that he hadn’t set out to compile such a collection but “it just snuck up on him”. Having always been inspired by Chopin’s nocturnes, one of which he worked on while a freshman at Oberlin, he later was scavenging around for teaching materials for his undergraduate students and came across some nocturnes by John Field, which were totally new to him. A search through the stacks at Eastman’s Sibley Library yielded the nocturnes by Cyril Scott and Alec Rowley that are on the recording. A music dealer in Atlanta, Hutchins and Rea, have been wonderful about collecting nocturnes for him during their international travels. Actually, each nocturne has its own story. But how did they make their way onto a very distinctive recording?
Dr. Landrum met his record producer, David Frost, at the Taubman Institute, and they became good friends. They set about to record the nocturnes at Roberts Wesleyan College already in the year 2000. Dr. Landrum paid for the engineering and production, program notes and photography. Like many labors of love, nothing happened immediately, but it was David Frost who introduced him to Sono Luminus, the distinguished label who released the recording. He originally gave them enough material for one disc, thinking they would find the repertoire too cumbersome. They insisted on having two. Enjoying my little nocturne adventure so much, I asked Dr. Landrum for contact information for the Managing Director of Sono Luminus. I reached Daniel Shores on the first try. When I asked how he makes decisions about which albums to release, he said that their primary focus is on the highest quality of performance and sound. In the case of the nocturnes, it was the beautiful sound achieved by David Frost and the captivating performances of Michael Landrum. He said he could hear the passion in his music making and felt it needed to be heard. Sono Luminus benefited from receiving a fully prepared recording but they did the final packaging and undertook a substantial promotional campaign which led to WQXR receiving the set and ultimately featuring it on the air.
I have often been asked by young artists: How can I stand out from the pack? What does it take to get noticed? Clearly a recording can be a very valuable tool. But what kind of recording? Something that truly touches the artist and brings out their unique gifts. If the repertoire turns out to be unusual and the recording has a unifying theme, that can prove to be a plus. The chosen works should feel like intimate friends, especially since they will undoubtedly be performed often, in preparation for the recording and later, in promoting it. Michael Landrum did not undertake his recording project to advance his career; however, he has found the nocturnes to be a perfect vehicle for a lecture recital format, which he greatly enjoys presenting both in Rochester and in guest engagements when his schedule allows. In wrapping up our conversation, he told me that “he is stunned that people seem to be interested in his little project”. I told him that I was touched by his humility, dedication and patience in bringing such a special project to light and that I was sure others would be too.
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© Edna Landau 2012