THESE ARE, generally speaking, pretty good times for classical music.
For some reason, these are not particularly good times for classical music magazines.
In the past couple of years, the monthlies Ovation and Opus have disappeared after brief runs. The venerable High Fidelity, which was an equipment magazine that at one time had been a reliable source of classical record reviews, also expired.
Left standing are such edifices as American Record Guide and Fanfare, both journals of record reviews aimed at the serious -- some might say rabid -- listener. And there is Classical, a more general-readership monthly that sprang from the ashes of Ovation last December. Stereo Review and CD Review pay relatively scant attention to classical music.
Into this uncertain landscape comes a brave volley from Gramophone, the weighty British classical-music monthly: It is now publishing an American edition.
"Some people have seen our timing as attempting to take advantage of the situation over here," says managing editor Chistopher Pollard, in New York to oversee Gramophone's American beachhead. "Believe me, it's purely coincidental."
The American edition will mean, for openers, wider availability. This alone is good news for stateside music lovers who have been able to find single copies only in large record stores and a few hip, big-city newsstands.
"By the end of the year, I hope you'll see us in at least some of the bookstore chains," Pollard says.
The content of the American edition will differ only minimally from its English counterpart. A page of "North American" editorial news and comment will be inserted. Wrapping around that will be pages -- only a handful in the debut issue -- of advertising beamed exclusively at American readers.
And one more thing: The price on the cover will be converted from pounds (1.70) to dollars ($5.95).
Six dollars, of course, is a lot of money for a magazine, but a typical copy of Gramophone is a hefty thing. Roughly 250 reviews of new recordings, totaling well over a hundred pages, are at the physical and philosophical center of each issue.
The magazine also tends to carry a few feature articles and profiles (usually admiring) about classical performers, a section of spirited letters from readers, and a glorious profusion of ads for new recordings. American readers pay special attention to the ads, since big-label releases are often announced in Europe well before their arrival in the States. A glance at the magazine, carries a sweet foretaste of what treats will be in the bins a month or two hence.
Gramophone was founded in 1923 by Compton MacKenzie, who established it as an "organ of candid opinion" about classical music.
Today, the magazine has only 70,000 subscribers worldwide, a tiny number. Readership surveys show that the subscribers are well-heeled, well-educated and, for some reason Pollard cannot divine, overwhelmingly male. Though they are music lovers, most have no professional training in music. What binds them together is a passion for buying and collecting recordings.
"A lot of them buy more than 100 CDs a year, and we know that there are a significant number who buy more than 200."
The magazine's tone is earnest and scholarly, sometimes laced with a kind of tweedy hauteur that, depending on your mood, can be either amusing or irritating.
Polard laughs. "I think I know what you mean. Part of what you perceive is probably just British style. But you can think of individual reviewers who are extreme. At the same time, if you look at the newer names, you see that there has been some development in our tone, some refinement of it."
But refinement in this case will not mean glib yuppification. Politely, Pollard makes it clear that Gramophone will continue to be written for the serious listener, assuming, old-fashionedly, a measure of pre-existing musical cultivation and interest on the part of its readers.
"People do write to us and say we've educated them. But we have to take as a starting point a certain level of knowledge. As a tool for musical education, there's a limit to what we can achieve."