ESS.A.Y Recordings

Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1998.


In my search for "compact discoveries," I occasionally come across a CD or two I can enthusiastically recommend to my readers. Once in a while I come across an entire label. An example of that is a small, Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., company called ESS.A.Y Recordings.

This is a "boutique" label which specializes in music for violin and piano. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that ESS.A.Y specializes in certain artists: Mela Tenenbaum, whether she plays violin or viola; and Richard Kapp, whether he plays piano or fortepiano, conducts, or writes the program notes. One or both of these musicians grace many of the more than 50 CDs which have been issued so far. These include:

  • "The Paganinis at Home: An Evening of Casual Virtuosity," with Mela and Alex Tanenbaum playing violins, Dorothy Lawson on cello, and Paul Bernard, guitar. The all-Paganini chamber music program includes the "Serenata for Two Violins & Guitar," "Sonata No. 1," and two "Terzettos" (Terzetti?). An hour of well-played, rare repertoire by a man who is still better known for his legendary fiddling than for his composing. You have to be younger than I am to appreciate the program notes, however, which are in legal finepoint typeface.

  • "Songs without Words," with Mela Tanenbaum, violin, and Richard Kapp, piano, includes 24 short pieces out of which only one by Mendelssohn reflects the album's title. This delightful collection of bonbons includes pieces by Kreisler, Elgar, Chopin, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Dvorak, et. al. But you will also find Gautier's "Le Secret," best known, perhaps, to my generation of beginning piano students, and "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen."

  • "Mela/Viola," with Tanenbaum on the viola, this time, and Kapp at the piano. This CD is likely to put a damper on all those viola jokes:

    Q. How do you keep your violin from being stolen?

    A. Keep it in a viola case.

    Q. What is perfect pitch on a viola?

    A. Getting it into the waste basket without hitting the sides.

    Q. What's the difference between the first and last desk of a viola section?

    A. Half a measure.

    Mela Tenenbaum makes the viola sound so good, I start to think that the higher-pitched violin should be the victim of this humor instead. The repertoire on this CD includes the romantic "Meditation" from "Thäis" by Massenet, the aria from "Bacchianas Brasileras No. 5" by Villa Lobos, and 16 other such terrific tunes.

  • "Musical Evenings with the Captain," volumes one and two, music from the Aubrey-Maturin novels of Patrick O'Brian. These CDs include chamber music by Mozart, Bach, Locatelli, Handel, Boccherini, Leclair and Haydn performed by Mela Tennenbaum, Richard Kapp, Dorothy Lawson and others, with program notes by O'Brian. The idea is to create the feeling of a performance of the music which might be played in the captain's cabin on a good night at sea.

Kapp turns out, as well, to be the president and sole employee of ESS.A.Y Recordings. So he was a natural choice to interview when I wanted to find out more about this small but musically impressive label:

Q: How, when, where and why did ESS.A.Y Recordings start?

A: About ten years ago I was in Florida for concerts with Philharmonia Virtuosi. At the time, we had been doing performances of Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" that were received with real enthusiasm. One day, in Clearwater prior to our performance at Ruth Eckerd Hall, I went to the auditorium office, borrowed a computer and a printer and produced an order form. At the concert, I told people we were doing what Greyhound and others had done 50 years earlier -- when the bus was full, it would leave the station! I said that when we had taken 350 orders, we would record "The Four Seasons" and only bill peoples' MC and Visa when we were about to send the recording. In the next two days we took 350 orders. We went back to New York and recorded and ESS.A.Y was born. That first CD was effectively paid for by the $5,000 to $6000 in advance orders.

Q: What is your label's mission? What makes it unique or special?

A: ESS.A.Y's mission is to create recordings you listen to more than once. I had made more than 40 recordings for Vox, CBS, and others and sold something like a million and a half copies of everything, particularly of the CBS stuff. The problem was that those folks couldn't understand that good taste and commercial success were not necessarily antithetical. In order for the two to co-exist, one must relinquish just a bit of greed. ESS.A.Y was, for me, a chance to say "this is what I can do and this is what I believe in."

From the beginning, we have only recorded and/or released CDs in which I have inordinate confidence. It is terribly important that we never record in order to maintain a release schedule; frankly, it's not possible to think musically and conform to a release schedule, except in the most relaxed sense. What we record is the result of ideas maturing, of recognizing opportunities when they arise, and of making our ears -- mine paramount among all others -- the final determinant of what we release.

In the truest sense, ESS.A.Y is a reflection of my own tastes -- what ESS.A.Y says is "This is what I stand for," and hopefully, with time and experience, people will extrapolate from their experience with the label that, if it is to be found on ESS.A.Y it will be exceptional, rewarding, surprising and illuminating. Since the guiding artistic taste is my own, we can move without difficulty from Locatelli to Thomas Young.

There's one other factor that is extremely important -- and this one goes back to the days before ESS.A.Y -- to the CBS experience and, certainly, to my conducting and concert experience. What we do is always -- underline always -- based upon what you hear and not upon what you think or what you know. Music is music -- it's not a sonic representation of thoughts or people's intellectualisms. For this reason, we tend to avoid the alphabetical-by-composer organization that guides almost the entire business of recorded music.

Of course, there are exceptions -- The Four Seasons, the Brandenburg Concertos, the Shostakovich Quartets, etc. But these all exist in a musical framework even before they exist in an alphabetical one. That's been the basis for our "conceptual" recordings -- whether Tom Young's "High Standards," Ruth Laredo's "My First Recital," "Music from the Aubrey-Maturin Novels of Patrick O'Brian," "Lullabies," and so forth.

The fact is that people don't instinctively listen to "composers;" they listen and hear contextually. And what they hear is partly a function of where they are coming from, and partly a function of their being human and responding to a variety of stimuli that collect, correlate, contradict and reinforce one another.

Q: Where does the name of your label come from?

A: That's a long story. Twenty-five years ago the engineer David Hancock played me a cassette of the Schubert B-flat piano sonata and asked me what I thought. I said it was terrific -- who was it? He told me it was Harris Goldsmith, sometimes pianist/critic. Immediately I said "It's lousy!" When we both stopped laughing I said, "You know, I should start a label and release only what we are willing to stake our reputations on -- and omit the names of our artists. We should try to compel people to respond to what they actually hear, not to their knowledge and preconceptions, as I just responded." So I set up a company and envisaged not one but TWO labels.

ESS.A.Y was to be the one without names and our plan was to place a postal reply card in each (then) LP that would state "We stake our reputations upon the quality of what you will hear on this recording. If you concur and if, after listening, you are curious about who the artist was, send the postal reply card back to us and two years later we will send you the name and biography of the recording artist."

The problem was that when I floated the idea past a number of reviewers and critics I happened to know, they all -- to a man -- insisted that they would never review anything that appeared without being identified. Evidently, the risk of liking something that was politically incorrect, or disliking something they should, by right, be lauding posed too much of a threat, and their response was to threaten me with total disregard. In those days, there were still enough publications and reviews and interest remaining for their opinions to make a difference, so I simply abandoned the idea.

The actual name is a play on words. An essay is, of course, a statement of personal point of view about whatever subject is under discussion. This is just about what ESS.A.Y is. However, in the romance languages the letters S.A. stand for Societé Anonyme, the equivalent of our "Inc." and meaning, specifically, an anonymous society, i.e. shareholders of a publicly held company. Our original plan was to use S.A. for the anonymous releases and ESSAY for the named ones. You see how it worked out.

Q: I understand that records are in your genes. Please tell my readers something about your background.

A: My grandfather was a record peddler on the streets of Chicago. My father's eldest brother founded American Decca and made his fortune. My father's next brother, Dave, stayed at Decca until 1949 or '50, when Jack died, and brainstormed the idea of the American musical on the new LP record. Ultimately, he founded Kapp records -- over my father's near-dead body, since he rightly felt that it was a bit egocentric to name a record company after onesself!

My dad was in radio until after the war, got into publishing; published a number of wonderful kids' songs and some pop stuff that nobody wanted until Tony Bennett recorded "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" eight years later. With that money and the income from "Dominique" and the Singing Nun, which my mother had heard while visiting my sister in Brussels and which no one in the U.S. wanted, he turned his publishing firm into a house to publish and record serious contemporary music, which he did until his death 20 years later.

He never took the money for himself -- plowed it back into publishing, printing (in his own offices, the same old building where Philharmonia Virtuosi and ESS.A.Y are now situated!), and recording, his label being Serenus Recorded Editions and his philosophy being that contemporary publication was no longer sensible or complete without a recorded edition of the copyrighted works in question. I am filled with affection and respect for what this loner did, while everyone alive considered him stupid, cranky, stubborn or worse because he didn't just take the money and move to Barbados.

I first worked for George H. de Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, who headed Vox, in 1953 when I was sixteen, actually selling with his then-distributor in NY. I then ran a highly successful little record sales operation while at college -- helping to pay the bills. I grew up in the business, so to speak.

During my almost ten years at the Ford Foundation, I designed and implemented the so-called Recording-Publication Program, which resulted in the recording of almost three hundred contemporary works representing a wide scale of publishers and recording companies -- almost anything you can think of between 1974 and 1978 (Carter's "Concerto for Orchestra," Crumb's "Ancient Voices," etc.) was assisted by this program, probably the least expensive and most efficient effort ever undertaken by a foundation to stimulate activity in the field.

In 1977 I had the idea for "Great Hits of 1720" and offered it to Vox, for whom I had already made dozens of recordings in Europe and with the Philharmonia Virtuosi in its early New York Philharmonic-chamber- orchestra days. George turned it down, pointing out that everything I wanted to include already existed within the extensive Vox catalogs. So I took the idea to Tom Frost who took it with me into Marvin Saines, then head of Artists & Repertoire for CBS/U.S. Over the dead bodies of his European colleagues, we did the recording, complete -- including technical, site rental, union payments, etc. -- for $7,500. My conditions were that 1) they must use our title, 2) our design concept (baroque billboard chart), 3) contents as we set them out, and 4) pricing as we set it out -- in other words, the whole shebang. In exchange, they got the LP for $7,500 finished on the final condition -- actually a wager -- that if the recording sold less than 100,000 copies in the first year, they would never pay us royalties, but if it sold more than 100,000, they would pay us our royalty from copy one and give us no nonsense about "recoupment of advances."

It sold 225,000 copies in the first year.

By the way, I assigned any royalty interests to Philharmonia Virtuosi and have never earned a direct penny from this recording: but it did keep the orchestra going for the better part of fifteen years!

Q: How many people work for ESS.A.Y?

A: Just me. We share our offices with Philharmonia Virtuosi. ESS.A.Y pays a portion of the PV rent, utilities, etc. and maintains its own shipping accounts. I work with a graphics house for design and production, and with various replicators, printers, etc. Everything goes through me. When not busy producing CDs, I conduct 70 to 80 concerts a year with PV along with my major responsibilities for development and programming. We do a great many chamber music programs and I find myself doing more and more piano and harpsichord work, not because I want to, but because I don't like the way other people play! They play better than I do, but they don't make any musical sense! Besides, I'm cheaper.

Q: How is ESS.A.Y doing financially?

A: We have no payables. We have money in the bank. We have substantial receivables from a variety of solid sources, and we will not be crippled by returns because of the special nature of so much of our catalog. But most important, ESS.A.Y actually pays for the recordings it undertakes. That sounds silly, but it is a rare exception to a rule become so general that even the biggest labels do not pay the artistic costs of the recordings they undertake and release. I find it appalling how the big labels -- and even most of the small ones -- make claims for what they are doing when the funding comes in from third parties, or fourth or fifth parties. For Deutsche Grammophon to bear the technical costs of recording The Met is already a big burden, to be sure, but it changes things for me to know that the astronomical talent costs were borne by a lady in Texas.

Q: How are you doing artistically?

A: I think better and better. I would not do now the things we did eight years ago, although I am still not about to disparage them. (Our Thomson recording is a classic; so is our Sousa and our "Four Seasons." Our Shostakovich quartets are still a major statement; our Brandenburgs are arguably the best modern-instrument version on the market.) The problem is that I find it increasingly difficult to attach myself to projects since I find most of what I hear inadequate. If there were contemporary repertoire that really spoke to me, I would fight to do it. But I haven't found it and I begin to think that my age is shutting down my taste.

We have performed four orchestra/concerto works by Giorgio Federico Ghedini within the past four years: "Musica da Concerto for Viola, Viola d'amore and String Orchestra," "L'Olmeneta Concerto for Two Cellos and Orchestra," "Concerto dell'Albatro for Piano Trio and Orchestra with Narrator" (drawn from a footnote in "Moby Dick") and, most recently, the "Sonata da Concerto for Flute and String Orchestra." These are all major and marvelous works and I would die to record them. But the cost of recording with PV is prohibitive and I find myself stymied, particularly since chances are we wouldn't sell 300 copies in today's market.

What I have -- and what is unique and will leave a legacy for the next hundred years -- is Mela Tenenbaum. This woman's artistry is so far above anything I have encountered in sixty years, and our musical and personal relationships are so edifying (our two families are closer than I thought two families could be in one lifetime!), that this becomes a major thrust, perhaps too major a thrust, of what we seek to undertake. We just did the Sibelius "Humoresques" and I have never in my lifetime heard playing and music-making that could compare to this!

Q: How are your CDs distributed?

A: In the U.S. by Allegro Corp., in Portland, Oregon. Our speciality, non-retail items ("Lullabies," "Dear Harp of My Country," "O'Brian," etc.) for non-retail stores by SILO MUSIC in Waterbury, Vermont. We do a lot of direct mail, too. Everything should be available in the stores except that nothing is available in the stores! Borders, Tower, etc. are all good customers through Allegro. That doesn't mean that 1) you can find what you are looking for on a given day, or 2) you could find what you were seeking even if it were in the stores' inventory.

We are distributed in the U.K. by Direct Imports (Rare Records Limited) in Manchester. In Benelux by Baltic Music. In the Far East by Cisco Music, Ltd. There are still open territories -- e.g. no one currently in Germany where, for the first half dozen years, we had a license arrangement with Koch-Schwann which we allowed to expire. Frankly, forcing ourselves into these overcrowded markets has little point. When enough buzz arises, we will be sought out.

Q: How many copies of a CD do you produce?

A: With a normal no-sell CD, 1000 to start, reruns in 500 to 1000 increments. With a "Musical Evenings for the Captain, Vol. II" our first run was about 6,000 and we are now over 10,000. Volume I -- our biggest seller to date -- has done about 20,000 in its first year, much of it through non-retail channels. We have pressed about 55,000 CDs this year! Our good relationship with Columbia House accounts for perhaps 10% of the total. Our Vivaldi "Miraculous Mandolin" continues to sell 3,000-4,000 copies per year.

Q: How do you decide what to record?

A: That is the eternal mystery. For example, we recorded the complete Shostakovich String Quartets because I felt this was one of the major 20th century statements that remained overlooked, and because of the coincidence of the Manhattans performing the series in Moscow, Paris and NY (two of them were, then, members of PV which gave us the connection). We recorded the complete piano music of Balakirev - because it exists and because I thought it was interesting enough to do - and we have sold next to nothing.

Now, we are about finished with the complete piano music of Dvorak -- amazingly never before undertaken. This is great stuff. The performances by Inna Poroshina are stunningly poetic, and I can only hope that it won't die completely. But we could afford to record it because Inna lives in Kiev and costs were very low, at least when compared to what they are here or in Western Europe now.

The essence of the decision-making process is that economics prevent us from doing what we should be doing; we have waited three years to complete the Locatelli "l'Arte del Violino" with Mela because the costs are insane when one assesses the sales possibilities. (If we were to record the concertos with PV, at non-union rates, we would have to pay 14 shares x $150 per session for six sessions, i.e. $12,600 for orchestra for two discs. Add $750 x 6 for producer expense -- $4,500. Add $5,000 for the recording venue and harpsichord rentals, another $4,000 to edit two CDs (at a minimum), $1500 for artwork and cover designs, and initial printing costs of $900 and replication costs of $2,000 for 1000 CDs of each of two CDs; this is more than $30,000 -- without paying Mela to play or me to conduct. If we send out 250 promos to radio stations and press, leaving 750 -- we can wholesale the 750 for $14 each, realizing $10,500 gross from the sale of all 750. The chances are it will take us 4 years to sell 750 Locatellis! Yet, somehow, we will find a way to do it -- perhaps in Prague or Kiev in June, because it must be done.

Q: How do you pick your cover designs?

A: Often, but not always, the conception is mine. For example, with our Paganini CD I insisted it be called "The Paganinis at Home" and rejected an entire series of designs until I finally suggested putting figures in silhouette -- as we have done. Likewise, the Brandenburgs package is just that -- a package indicating the package J.S. Bach sent to the Margrave when he solicited a job at the Brandenburg court.

Other times, I rely upon our designers to come up with the ideas and send them to me for consideration. Some are specific ("Captain") and lend themselves to a particular approach. Others ("Songs without Words" CD1048) do not, and here I am particularly dependent upon the imagination -- the commercial imagination -- of our designers at Spirals, Inc., with whom I have worked for several years.

Q: What about your program notes?

A: I have hired people to do them when I thought it was appropriate. Earlier on, I thought it was generally inappropriate for me to write the notes, but I have lived through such editorial hell having to rewrite and edit and suggest to writers why what they submit does not work (without hurting their feelings unless absolutely unavoidable) that it has become simpler for me to accept the idea that each recording is a personal statement through my perspective, and that I am probably better equipped to produce the notes efficiently and the way I want them to be. I also write the notes for The Met Museum concerts of PV and much else and, as you know, after a while you get a knack for turning out the right number of words and finding the tone you want to convey.

Q: What are your plans for the future -- immediate and long range?

A: Immediate, the Bach sonatas for violin and harpsichord and violin and piano. Mela will do them twice -- once with Gerald Ranck (another regular member of our family!) and with me. The results are radically different and we will issue them together in the same box for the price of one set, because I think this is the best way for people to hear them. The afore-mentioned Dvorak piano music - four to six CDs before we are finished -- two already for release, two more in editing and the remainder being recorded now. In June, if all goes well, the Locatelli, a CD of the violin music of Sibelius, minus the concerto but including the humoresques, the serenades and the fascinating pieces for violin and piano.

Long range? Much depends upon serendipity and the way business goes in this terrible, illiterate market. I have another lengthy thesis to propound -- but not here -- having to do with the stupidity of trying to sell music alphabetically in 75 minute increments. How would you like to take a friend into a store and browse the letter "H" for a couple of hours if you didn't know what you were looking for? As the business implodes or, more accurately, as it has become a business without a subject matter other than the dollar value of what moves out the door, it becomes increasingly difficult to plan cogently. We will have to swing by our heels -- or our thumbs -- for a while!

Q: Perhaps we could conclude this interview with an anecdote based on your experiences with ESS.A.Y Recordings?

A: There are so many anecdotes to relate, I wouldn't know where to begin. Best to talk about the incredible experience of working with Mela. When we did "Mela/Viola" a couple of months ago, Mela opened the book of Mazas exercises -- one of those books feared by violinists for almost two centuries which Mela was now attacking on the VIOLA -- and suggested that No.19 was really a recitative and aria -- would I improvise the orchestral part on the piano? I did -- and that's what appears on the CD. You can't imagine what a blast it is to work with an artist like this! I honestly believe that the viola CD is probably the single supreme piece of work of this sort ever released. Mela's playing is simply absolutely awesome -- and the collaboration is about as integrated as anything I've ever heard. Obviously, I'm inordinately proud of it.


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