Can classical be underground?

Portsmouth's Navona Records releases an indie aesthetic for orchestra
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  November 14, 2008

beat_JonathanSacks_111408.jpg
LOCAL NAME, INTERNATIONAL SOUND: Jonathan Sacks.

At least one of the reasons many of us contemporary-music fans don't get into classical music is because it seems like no one wants us to listen to it. You never see a classical record or performance promoted on the front page of iTunes, or with an ad in Rolling Stone, or on that new-fangled promotional vehicle called television. We have an occasional "Classical" column here in the Phoenix, but that only emphasizes that classical music is other than the local music I review here in this column.

But maybe that's finally changing. Go look at the iTunes front page for classical music. Check out Natalie Dessay's new album. That chick is hot! She's wearing an off-the-shoulder white gown, with black rose petals cascading off of her onto a mirrored floor. And the Emerson String Quartet have a Brat Pack thing going that's not too bad.

Of course, the rest of it: blech. Maybe it's not changing much. Ninety percent of the album art for the new releases continues to look as though they've been designed with Pagemaker 1.0 and a sledgehammer, text-heavy with Times New Roman font and amateur photos of the performers or composers (or, better yet, a black-and-white engraving of the composer — lord, how that gets the fans excited!). I may not judge an album by its cover, but I sure am more likely to take a chance on something if it at least fits into my general record-buying frame of reference.

Just look at the cover for the new Conifer album I reviewed a couple weeks back. That band is essentially a classical orchestra made from guitars, basses, and drums, with no lyrics and multi-suited 16-minute songs. But the cover design, a lush, impossibly green bank of trees descending into a calm lake, just screams, "We're a smart and interesting band. Take a chance on us!"

A tight shot of a musician's face with an absurdly long list of composers' names and song titles full of musical notation screams, "Holy crap am I stodgy and boring! Don't buy me unless you're over 50 or maybe related to me!"

Clearly, the time is ripe for Hampton, New Hampshire's Navona Records to hit the scene, the indie label for audio production house PARMA Recordings, which is headed up by Dreadnaught bassist Bob Lord. Prog-rocker Lord is a composer and producer of note, who's had his work recorded by the Moravian Philharmonic and traveled in May to Bratislava, Slovakia, to produce session with the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Kirk Trevor. Now, those sessions have resulted in the grist for the first two releases from Navona Records, Richard Stoltzman's Phoenix in Flight and Jonathan Sacks's 5th (S)eason (which features Stoltzman).

PARMA does recordings for other labels, as well, but has started signing talent and releasing records of its own that are outside the classical mainstream. "Navona is very much a classical label approached from an indie mindset," confirms Sean Joncas, the company's production development manager, "combining challenging, forward-thinking and innovative contemporary classical music, top-notch musicianship, eye-catching packaging, and aggressive grassroots promotion." They're hitting the blogs and message boards. The artists have MySpace pages. The CDs look cool. And they come with PDFs of the sheet music.

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