The Bay Area Grammy Nominees You Won't See on TV

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San Franciso Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas.  (Kristin Loken)

The best of the best have recorded Robert Schumann's Symphonies Nos. 1–4, including world-renowned ensembles such as Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein leading the New York Philharmonic. So how can an orchestra possibly re-imagine a piece of music that's been performed since the mid-19th century, let alone render that performance original enough to be worthy of a Grammy nomination in 2019?

"In this traditional literature that we record, there’s certainly no point in recording it in these times unless you have something unique to say about it," says Jack Vad, a producer and engineer who collaborated with outgoing music director Michael Tilson Thomas on the San Francisco Symphony’s recordings of Schumann’s symphonies. The double-disc set Schumann: Symphonies Nos. 1–4 (SFS Media), recorded in Davies Symphony Hall and released on the symphony's own label, is up for Best Orchestral Performance at the 61st Grammy Awards this Sunday.

"The differences in interpretation that are exemplified in this particular set are ones that reflect a more nuanced, more sensitive and more intimate feeling about these pieces," Vad tells me. "I think when you get to that level of subtlety, all of a sudden you find things that are a bit different. It’s easy to be loud and it’s easy to be quiet and simple, but there are a whole lot of other things in between."

Admittedly, like most people, I've always been more into to the pop performances and celebrity drama at the Grammy Awards (like Ariana Grande beefing with Grammy producer Ken Ehlrich this year). But there are dozens of Grammy categories—in classical, opera, jazz, metal and blues—that don't get televised. This year's awards feature two dozen-plus Bay Area nominees that you won't see on TV this weekend, and close to half of those nominees, including MTT and the San Francisco Symphony, are in the classical and opera categories.


Mason Bates' tech-inspired opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs is a hot contender for Best Opera Recording, Best Engineered Classical Album and Best Contemporary Classical Composition. John Adams is up for Best Opera Recording for Doctor Atomic, which premiered at San Francisco Opera. Conductor Constantine Orbelian and producer Vilius Keras, both locals, could take home the Best Opera Recording award for their work on Verdi's Rigoletto with the Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra and the Men Of The Kaunas State Choir. And in Contemporary Classical Composition, Bates competes against fellow Bay Area composer Jake Heggie, who is nominated for his farcical meta-opera Great Scott.  

"I think getting this far does reflect a whole village," says Bates of reaching Grammy-level contention. "There’s the singers, who are amazing, and obviously there’s the recording engineers. And then there’s the music and libretto—and that is the anchor of it all—but it all has to work together."

San Francisco's Kronos Quartet, one of the country's most boundary-pushing string ensembles, is in the running for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance with Landfall, the moody and surrealist album they recorded with musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson. And veteran Bay Area engineers Keith O. Johnson and Sean Royce Martin are up for Best Engineered Classical Album for their work on the Dallas Winds' John Williams at the Movies, competing against fellow local engineer Shawn Murphy, who worked on Andris Nelsons and Boston Symphony Orchestra's rendition of Shostakovich's Symphonies Nos. 4 and 11. 

"[The recordings] that have merit—it's a lot more than technical do-how," says Keith O. Johnson, explaining that engineering the Dallas Winds' renditions of Williams' classic theme songs for Superman and Star Wars required creative decision-making such as knowing when to emphasize a soloist or re-position the listener's vantage point from the audience to the orchestra pit. "[The Recording Academy] is interested in performance, emotions, feelings, drama, staging—the kinds of things that make a recording something special to listen to."

Although the Grammys aren't quite as prestigious in the classical music world as the Pulitzer Prize—and, according to industry insiders, don't make a big difference in sales—some critics argue that the Grammys' emphasis on contemporary and historical works alike reward orchestras for taking risks.

"These days, the classical Grammys are much more closely linked to live orchestral performance than they’ve been for quite some time," writes Anne Midgette for The Washington Post. "That’s because most orchestral recordings these days are made during performances, and are issued, in many cases, on orchestras’ own in-house labels. Recording, increasingly, is part of an orchestra’s mandate. And since, as we’ve seen, recordings tend to feature different repertoire than standard subscription programs, this trend of recording concerts for release is contributing, slowly but surely, to a perceptible broadening of the orchestral repertoire."

Though the winners of the classical and opera categories won't be seen on TV this Sunday at the Grammys, it's heartening to know that the Bay Area's forward-thinking classical music talent is recognized on such a mainstream platform.

As Kronos Quartet's David Harrington jokes: "Landfall for Album of the Year!"