Cala keeps recording, note by fascinating note

Label specializes in quirky repertoire, unusual offerings

Classical Music

October 12, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

In today's bottom-line-fixated world, major record companies, having steadily cut back on their classical lines, do more repackaging of old material than producing new releases. Classical record departments have shrunk or disappeared in many retail stores. It's enough to make anyone abandon all hope.

Luckily, there still are folks out there keeping the classical recording genre alive, if not exactly robust. Small labels have proliferated considerably, filling in all sorts of gaps in repertoire and introducing lots of talent that might otherwise never see the light of a compact disc player's laser beam. One of these independent labels, Naxos, has gone from obscurity to astonishing market presence since 1987. Other newcomers have not made such a splash, but have certainly made a mark. One of them is Cala Records.

This company, founded by British conductor Geoffrey Simon in 1990, has one administrative foot in London, the other in Baltimore. Cala is far from a big-budget operation; there are "two and half employees," says Jeremy Swerling, Cala's Baltimore-based vice president. "We run it lean and mean." (Simon is a former music director of the Sacramento Symphony; Swerling was for a time that orchestra's resident conductor.)

Even on a shoestring, Cala ( has established an international presence with an unusual identity. Make that several identities.

"One of the things that interested me was mixing popular repertoire with things not often recorded," says Simon, "music that would enable people to make a discovery." The result was a series of CDs featuring the London Philharmonic and other notable ensembles, conducted by Simon.

These releases offer such novelties as a somber, haunting, five-and-a-half minute piece by Borodin called Requiem, based - inconceivably, but brilliantly - on the tune we know as Chopsticks and orchestrated by legendary conductor Leopold Stokowski. This wonderfully odd item and the under-appreciated Petite Suite complement some of Borodin's greatest hits on a distinctive disc of appealing, well-recorded performances.

Similar mixes of the familiar and rare characterize releases of works by Debussy, Respighi, Saint-Saens and others. "As we were doing those recordings, I looked into other directions," Simon says. One of those directions turned out to hit pay dirt: the London Sound series.

Musical stretching

Simon, a cellist as well as conductor, got the idea of massing together no less than 40 cellos, using the cello sections of four eminent British orchestras. Arrangements of classical and pop music items, from Rachmaninoff's Vocalise to Bernstein's Tonight, made up the repertoire for the first disc, The London Cello Sound.

"The sound of all those cellos was so overwhelming," says Simon, who conducted the recording. "So we made more CDs like that - 48 violas, 32 horns - and found a market of devotees for them. They appeal to a population of musicians, primarily. People will pay decent money for them, because they can't get anything like that anywhere else. We sold over 50,000 copies of the cellos CD. All the others have sold over 15,000, some 20,000 or 30,000."

Those figures wouldn't say much for a pop label, but they're very respectable for a classical one - and they have kept Cala afloat. The series' lets orchestral musicians have fun with material they wouldn't otherwise get to play, some of it pretty far from the classical mainstream - 76 trombones playing 76 Trombones, for example, or 10 double basses breaking out with the Spice Girls' Wannabe. (Cala also sells the arrangements used in the series to those seeking to re-create the experience.)

There's a good deal of musical stretching, if not quite to such fringe areas, in another Cala series - New York Legends. Recorded in the '90s, this series devotes a CD to each of 12 principal players in the New York Philharmonic. "The idea germinated of preserving a snapshot of a great orchestra by recording its individual talent," Simon says. "I told them, `You choose the repertoire, but make sure it's important to you.' " The result is an extraordinary compilation of music - some 80 pieces, 38 never before recorded, including many works written specifically for the players.

Valuable collection

Funding for the Philharmonic project proved difficult; even the orchestra's management expressed little interest in it, Simon says. Struggling to get a new product launched is, of course, routine in today's classical record business. Simon hasn't made an orchestral recording for Cala since 1992. "He's chomping at the bit," Swerling says, "but the money just isn't there." Some Cala releases are paid for by the performing artists themselves, others by grants.

Sometimes, backing comes from unexpected places. Enter another Cala enterprise - reissues of old recordings by Stokowski, one of the 20th century's most colorful and often most inspiring conductors.

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