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What Little Ears You Have, Grammy!


Alice would have liked the Grammy Awards. They get curiouser and curiouser. They have been getting curiouser and curiouser, in fact, since the first bizarre presentations back in 1959.

Other observers, observers better qualified than this presumed elitist, can bemoan the oddities that mark the "big" Grammy categories--those awards that are supposed to recognize special merit in pop and rock and jazz and schlock.

The Grammys are curious enough if one's gaze is confined to recordings that happen to deal with unimportant things: symphonies and concertos and operas and chamber music.

The Grammys do deal in such things, you know. If you didn't know, it's because the industry always likes to keep that fact a dim and distant secret.

Handed out--for the most part--during a much-ballyhooed CBS telecast on Feb. 25, the Grammys are supposed to cite "creative and technical excellence." Those, at any rate, are the nice-sounding words quoted by Michael Greene, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, a.k.a. NARAS.

In many ways, Grammys are like the Oscars they emulate. Grammys do not reflect profound critical judgments. They are popularity contests run for and by members of the industry. They tend to legitimize (and enlarge) commercial successes. They tend to be conservative. They pretend that music and show biz are inseparable. They celebrate glitz.

This year, prizes were awarded in 71 categories, only 12 of which surveyed what NARAS calls the "classical field." The winners were selected from releases that hit the stores between Oct. 1, 1984, and Sept. 30, 1985.

The selection procedure is relatively simple: The NARAS membership--which includes some 6,000 performers, composers and technicians who can boast at least six recording credits--first makes nominations, then votes en masse in the four top pop categories. Members also can vote in eight additional categories, presumably areas in which they have special expertise--or special interest.

Record companies and performing organizations sometimes wage extravagant campaigns to bring a particular product to the favorable attention of the voters. Traditionally, prizes have gone to recordings featuring the most familiar musicians performing the most familiar music. Current artistic standards were often ignored if the NARAS members could endorse a cozy household name, be it Horowitz, Price, Pavarotti, Rubinstein or Bernstein.

Occasionally, however, a dark horse has won the race. Once in a while, an obscure artist gets the nod, or, even more surprising, an esoteric piece of music rises triumphant. There can be explanations for these eccentricities, but they would seem to have little to do with a sudden rise in aesthetic perception among the rank and file.

The greatest enigma this year involved the unpredictable prominence of the Atlanta Symphony. It is a good, middle-class orchestra. Robert Shaw, its maestro, is a solid and serious musician. Telarc, the company that records the Atlantans, makes nice, clear and crisp compact discs. The Atlanta/Telarc team put together several fine recordings this year, including the Berlioz Requiem, Handel's "Messiah," Faure's "Pelleas et Melisande" and Respighi's infernal "Pines," "Birds" and "Fountains."

It is all very nice. But, somehow, the Atlantans won four out of nine nominations for best classical album. At first glance, the number seems disproportionate, to be sure. At second glance, it seems ridiculous.

The Shaw performance of the Berlioz Requiem, for instance, must compete with some formidable recorded competition. The latest Schwann catalogue lists masterful performances of the same work by Leonard Bernstein with forces of the French National Radio, by Colin Davis with the London Symphony and by Lorin Maazel with the Cleveland Orchestra, not to mention the ancient and noble Charles Munch-Boston Symphony collaboration. In such company, the Shaw-Atlanta Requiem can seem little more than competent.

In any case, there were better, more important, records in 1985. Many weren't even nominated.

No matter. Shaw & Co. actually ended up winning Grammys for their Berlioz in four different categories, including best classical album.

How? No one knows for sure. Still, one can make some educated guesses.

Each member of the Atlanta Symphony is theoretically entitled to vote. A bloc of 100 well-orchestrated votes could swing a Grammy easily, under the right conditions.

"Next year," according to the NARAS president, "we're going to take a look at what happened here."

Second-guessing the Grammys, category by category, is not necessarily a revealing exercise. Nevertheless, it can stimulate some provocative speculations.

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