The NAB Blog

Marin Alsop, Copland, Naxos’s 20th Anniversary and more…

By Nicolas Soames

27 July 2007

I arrived back in the UK from Hong Kong the other day, went virtually straight into the office to catch up and, that evening, went to the Royal Albert Hall for the Prom concert. Marin Alsop was conducting Barber’s Violin Concerto (played by the Canadian violinist James Ehnes) and Copland’s Symphony No. 3 which I didn’t know at all. Spectacular. All traces of tiredness from the journey disappeared. The symphony includes the Fanfare for the Common Man which sounds so much better in a symphonic context than when abbreviated to herald a sports event.

Marin is known to Naxos AudioBooks listeners for her readings – The Story of Classical Music, Famous Composers (both mainly available in the United States) and More Famous Composers – but her day job (or more properly night job!) is principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and music director of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. A firebrand to watch on stage, she is relaxed and direct off-stage, and decidedly unpretentious.

Her introduction to the audiobooks wing of Naxos was in a barn. Really. I’d rather not go into details, but suffice to say she couldn’t come to London to record because she was working with the BSO in Poole. We received some bad advice about a suitable local speech studio and we found ourselves, in a barn with straw on the floor. The recording equipment wasn’t bad (except for a buzz…) and let’s just say that the studio itself was in the process of construction.

Marin was wonderfully unfazed. She didn’t complain or throw a wobbly. Just laid-back and patiently waited for me to sort it all out. At 7 p.m. at night. She is accustomed to working at night. So we went back to Poole, and rather fortunately I tracked down another studio, also on a farm – but the real McCoy…and the recording went ahead as planned. Marin proved herself as much a natural speaker in front of a microphone as she is when on the podium introducing her concerts, and The Story of Classical Music has been followed by the two programmes of composers’ lives.

Now you might think that anyone who can command a 100+ piece orchestra playing the Fanfare for the Common Man at full stretch, filling every nook and cranny of the Royal Albert Hall, wouldn’t have a problem with one microphone. But I can tell you recording an audiobook is a very different discipline. The single-voice mic. picks up every tiny trace of nerves, of blurred speech or an indecisive consonant. Speech recording is incredibly revealing of the personality behind the voice and there is only so much a skilful editor can do to snip out mouth clicks or an edginess. It sounds so easy but it isn’t.

But Marin saw herself as just there to tell the story of the music she loves, of the composers she respects and even reveres. And that is just what she did.

She is a consummate performer as one would expect from one of the leading figures on Naxos, the independent classical music label.

Of course, classical music is close to the heart of Naxos AudioBooks which sprang from Naxos. In just twenty years, Naxos has transformed classical music on CD. It was known mainly as a budget label for a long time; but as it celebrates its second decade, it is better know as the inexpensive label with the widest range of repertoire of any in the world. From Monteverdi to Peter Maxwell Davies.

Hong Kong is the headquarters of Naxos – that was why I was there – and the principal home of Klaus Heymann, the German-born businessman and classical music lover who started Naxos in 1987 more as a diversion than a serious commercial enterprise. It is a long and extraordinary story: from Eastern European orchestras playing classical pops by Vivaldi, Mozart and Beethoven to its current status as the most prolific and enterprising classical CD company. And not only does it lead in terms of the sheer breadth of the repertoire, it also has been the pioneer of classical music in the digital format.

Klaus Heymann realized early on that the internet and the digital medium would play a key role in the dissemination of classical music. was the first major classical music website, and it remains, without a doubt, the largest – a remarkable resource. He started the Naxos Music Library, streaming the thousands of hours of music to subscribers both educational and individual. The NML as it is known, is now an essential tool for universities and schools from Shanghai to London to New York, offering 24/7 streaming for as wide a range of classical music as one could hope for. When in Hong Kong, writing reports late night in my hotel, I listened to Bruckner symphonies conducted by Tinter streaming down on my laptop courtesy of the hotel broadband.

There is also the Naxos Spoken Word Library where all the audiobook recordings are available 24/7. Many have the texts which can be followed whilst listening – of particular use to listeners with English as a second language.

And now there is which is essentially the Download Shop for Naxos and many other classical titles, including Chandos, BIS, CPO, Wergo, Collegium, Hanssler, Hungaroton. It comes down, like the audiobook downloads from us, as straightforward MP3 files, DRM- and watermark-free for ease of use. Go and check it out!

Though Naxos has offices all around the world, it all emanates from the modern, vibrant city of Hong Kong, and the enterprise of its founder. Klaus has been doing travelling a lot this year – the UK, Germany, France, Greece (where he visited Naxos!), Australia and New Zealand, Scandinavia – for various 20th anniversary jamborees, and in September goes to the United States for the final part of the world tour.

Marin Alsop will be there to help mark the celebrations and launch the final part in her Brahms symphony cycle which has been very well received. Her many music recordings will take centre-stage, of course. But she is also rather proud of her other role introducing classical music to children, not least her own son who, on car journeys, will listen to nothing else!

So, though based in Hong Kong, Naxos and Naxos AudioBooks is very much an international affair!

Nicolas Soames

 • Latest Entry • The NAB Blog Archive •