Classical Style: ArtsNash debuts John Pitcher’s new classical column, featuring an interview with Naxos’ Klaus Heymann

This week we introduce Classical Style, a weekly column covering Nashville’s vibrant classical music, dance and fine arts scenes. Like its companion column, Jazz Plus, this space will feature a mix of reviews, interviews and miscellanea. For its debut, we talk with Klaus Heymann, founder of the Franklin-based Naxos of America. All photos are by Rick Malkin.

I have seen the future of classical music, and it’s now securely saved to my favorites. That musical miracle is the Naxos Music Library, an online subscription service that allows me to listen to virtually any piece of classical music. More than 76,000 CDs – the equivalent of more than one-million music tracks – are currently online and ready for streaming. Over the past few years, the site has become as essential to my digital existence as Facebook, Netflix or even email. I doubt that I could live without it.

Klaus 3The man behind this musical marvel is Klaus Heymann, the German-born, Hong Kong-based founder of the Naxos music label. Heymann is in Nashville this week to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his groundbreaking company, which has its American headquarters in Franklin. Seated in a classroom at Nashville’s W.O. Smith Music School, Heymann spent an hour on Thursday afternoon reflecting on his long, sometimes frustrating but ultimately successful business career. He credits his accomplishments to having made two timely and felicitous decisions.

“We were the first record label in the world to put our entire record catalogue online,” says Heymann, who speaks English with a soft and barely detectable German accent. “That was in 1996, and we were way ahead of the rest of the industry. Then in 2003 we were the first classical label on iTunes. We felt music was heading to the internet and we turned out to be right. The transition to digital was definitely one of our best two decisions. The other was the decision to move our American headquarters to Nashville.”

Long before he set foot in Middle Tennessee, Heymann already had one of those six-degrees-of-separation connections with Music City. Heymann founded Naxos in Hong Kong in 1987. By coincidence, the music director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra in 1987 was none other than Kenneth Schermerhorn, who was jointly the music director of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.

Schermerhorn became one of Naxos’ first house conductors. His 1988 Naxos recording of Sibelius’ Finlandia with the CSR Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava) was one of the new label’s earliest successes. At the time, Schermerhorn was already highly regarded for his Sibelius interpretations – he had received the Sibelius Medal in 1979 from the Finnish government. His association with Naxos gave the fledgling budget label some much needed credibility. In its early days, Naxos’ reputation needed all the burnishing it could get.

Klaus 18Naxos’ first recordings featured unknown artists and conductors working with obscure, low-rent orchestras from Eastern Europe. At first, critics and music retailers had a hard time taking these discs seriously. Who would want a Naxos recording of the Capella Istropolitana playing Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos when Deutsche Grammophon had the Berlin Philharmonic? Everybody, it turned out.

In 1987, the typical Herbert von Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic CD on Deutsche Grammophon sold for about $20. Heymann knew he couldn’t sell CDs from the Slovak Philharmonic at that price, so he decided to sell his discs at the same prices as vinyl LPs, then about $6.

Suddenly, there was a huge demand for Naxos’ budget CDs. But there wasn’t a lot of respect. Music retailers didn’t want to mix generic budget CDs of Turkish pianist Idil Biret playing Chopin alongside their RCA recordings of the legendary Arthur Rubinstein. So they started to display Naxos recordings on their own separate wall.  “It was like relegating us to the garbage bin,” says Heymann. “But ironically that also gave us a higher profile and helped our sales. By the time the major labels realized we were a threat it was too late. They couldn’t stop us.”

In fact, the major labels had already become hopelessly distracted. The phenomenon of the Three Tenors in 1990 changed expectations in the classical recording industry. Many of the major labels had become preoccupied with finding the next big thing – Irish Tenors, Three Mo’ Tenors, Three Blind Tenors, whatever. But the success of the original tenors couldn’t be duplicated. Naxos, meanwhile, spent its time becoming a repertoire company, one with a comprehensive catalogue that seemingly included every composer alphabetically from John Adams to Zemlinsky. It was the kind of holding that would eventually lend itself to becoming a first-rate online database.

Klaus 9As the major labels imploded, they began shedding talent. Premier orchestras in America that had pioneered the old classical 78s and LPs now had nowhere to record. Important conductors and soloists could still find work on the indie labels, but their profiles were diminished and distribution wasn’t always reliable. Naturally, Naxos benefited. After years of recording with unknowns, the label could suddenly boast of having conductor Marin Alsop recording a Brahms cycle with no less an ensemble than the London Philharmonic.

Of course, Naxos couldn’t make a plausible bid for world domination without a presence in America, the world’s biggest music market. But the company at first had difficulty establishing a distribution network in the U.S. “We had a checkered past in America,” says Heymann. An early distribution network he set up in New Jersey proved to be a failure. He solved the problem when he joined forces with Jim Sturgeon and Jim Selby, who both had experience in the pop business and connections in Nashville. With their help, Heymann created a new company, Naxos of America, with headquarters in Franklin.

Klaus 15Naxos’ proximity to Nashville has proven to be a godsend to the city’s classical ensembles. When Heymann launched his American Classics series, he turned to Kenneth Schermerhorn and the Nashville Symphony to make the first recordings. The label’s relationship with the NSO has since turned into a Grammy juggernaut. Starting with Leonard Slatkin and the NSO’s recording of Joan Tower’s Made in America in 2007, the orchestra seemingly wins a Grammy every time it steps into a studio to record American music. The exposure that this has given both to the orchestra and to contemporary American music has been invaluable.

Last week, I spoke by phone with noted American composer Richard Danielpour about his upcoming recording with the NSO and music director Giancarlo Guerrero. This composer, one of America’s greatest, sounded positively giddy about coming to Nashville to record his music. That would have been inconceivable 20 years ago. Serious composers would have scoffed at the idea of recording in Nashville. Now they know they have a real shot of winning a Grammy.

As for the future, Heymann is convinced that there will always be a market for music discs – connoisseurs and collectors have a tactile need to hold a physical product in their hands. Still, he is sure that listeners will increasingly turn to online subscriptions services to search for the music they want to hear. Heymann already has his Naxos Music Library and Naxos Video Library in place, and he’s convinced their future is secure. “Our renewal rate for those services is 99.8 percent,” says Heymann. “That’s unbelievable.”

So now it’s on to the next digital frontier, which for Heymann involves music education. Heymann believes that classical music needs an equivalent of the Kahn Academy, a nonprofit, online education service that provides instruction on everything from physics to art history. “I think there is a strong desire for that kind of instruction in classical music,” says Heymann, “and I would like to provide that service.”

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.