Top Reference for 21 Years

Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1997.

Reference Recordings, the San Francisco-based classical and jazz record label which is known for its great sound and top quality performances, is 21 years old. They deserve a happier birthday than the troubled classical music market is providing this year.

The company appeared, by coincidence, three years after the publication of E.F. Schumacher's best-selling book, "Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered." I say "by coincidence" because J. Tamblyn Henderson, Jr., RR's founder and president, never read the book, though his firm is a living example of the kind of creative entrepreneurship which Schumacher said was possible only from human-scale work units.

Reference Recordings still has only 10 employees. Their offices take up only 4,800 square feet. Their spring 1996 catalog lists a total of less than 100 releases. No question they are small. No question they are beautiful.

And amongst the most beautiful of their output, there's the delightful, fun-filled instrumental suite from WIlliam Walton's "Facade" with the Chicago Pro Musica (RR-16); Stravinsky's "l'Histoire du Soldat," with the same group (RR-17); and the lovely, tuneful, romantic pieces of the totally neglected American symphonic composer George Whitefield Chadwick (RR-64). Their newer releases include several gems of the standard repertoire:

  • Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite" and "The Rite of Spring" plus the lesser-known "Song of the Nightingale" all performed by the Minnesota Orchestra under its dynamic new conductor, Eiji Oue (RR-70);
  • famed pianist Eugene Istomin performing Mozart's "Piano Concertos No. 21 in C Major" and "No. 24 in C Minor" with Gerard Schwarz conducting the Seattle Symphony Orchestra (RR-68), and Beethoven's "Moonlight," "Waldstein" and "No Nickname" Sonatas (Op. 110 in A-flat) (RR-69);
  • the flawless Turtle Creek Chorale performing works by Dick Strauss, Joe Brahms, Schubert, Mendelssohn and others in an album called "The Times of Day" (RR-67); and
  • clarinetist John Bruce Yeh's "Ebony Concerto" album with the DePaul University Wind and Jazz Ensembles playing music by Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein, Morton Gould, Victor Babin and Artie Shaw, a superb CD (RR-55) to which I previously devoted an entire column.

Also listed in RR's last catalog is the recording I now use to test out my stereo system. It is called "XLO/Reference Recordings Test & Burn-in CD, and is available in 24k gold only - no fooling. It has a special, most appropriate catalog number, RX-1000. I used it recently to cure an out-of-phase problem I wasn't sure I had until I tried this CD. It also helped me to confirm that sound meant to come out of the left speakers actually did just that. It may not matter to anyone other than the conductor whether the trumpet is on the right or the left, but if you want to reproduce sound in your living room which is as close as possible to what was recorded in the concert hall, this CD is indispensable. (Nevertheless, don't expect me to explain what "burn-in" is. I'm trying to keep this article interesting.)

By many accounts some 50,000 classical CDs have been issued in the last decade and the market is saturated. There are reports of major classical CD companies cutting back on new releases and resorting to various "pop" techniques to package and sell classical material. I asked Tam Henderson how RR was doing.

"We're surviving," he replied, "and trying new things. We are taking on the distribution of another, non-competitive, label which specializes in blues and jazz. This will put at least some of our eggs in another musical basket, and put us in touch with a larger, different audience.

"RR has been fortunate recently in attracting a number of major-name artists, conspicuously the Minnesota Orchestra, pianist Eugene Istomin, Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony, conductor Jose Serebrier, bandmaster Frederick Fennell, and, as of this week, Nicolas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. At our humble beginnings, I never expected to be able to work with such a stellar array of talent."

I confessed to Henderson that I've often dreamed about starting my own CD company but, like most people, have never done anything about it.

"Put it out of your mind," he replied. "The very last thing this planet needs now is another CD label trying to sell classical music. The market has been deluged with product. No retail store can hope to cope. Everyone knows that the audience for classical music is old and dying off; few youngsters have any interest. This is no surprise, since our society has abandoned the idea that children should be taught to read and write a single language, never mind the fine arts. The poverty of knowledge in the American young is far more tragic than any fiscal shortage."

OK, I'll stick to writing about the CDs others make. But how, I asked Henderson, did he get started?

He told me that he and a partner made several thousand dollars on a real estate sale and he decided to use his share to follow his dream. "No one was there to tell me that you can't start a record label with only a few thousand dollars, so the company was undercapitalized from day one. My partner reinvested his profit in other real estate, and today is independently wealthy."

Henderson started Reference Recordings because, as he put it, "I've always loved music more than anything, and have had a lifelong fascination with phonograph records and record-playing equipment. Since I had no experience in the record business, no label would hire me, so I had to start my own. It's been 20 years of on-the-job training. You might think, as I did, that it would get easier with time, but no. Every detail of every aspect of planning, recording, editing, graphics, manufacturing, distribution, marketing and advertising is prone to screw-ups and disaster. Things go wrong that have never gone wrong before. It's the ideal career for the perfectionist: It puts one in touch with reality. I now consider myself a reformed purist."

How, I wondered, did Henderson decide which recording projects to take on and which to pass up?

"The first question to ask," he replied, "is: Can we pay for it? Many projects I might like to do would require more money than we could ever hope to recoup, such as recording American orchestras at union scale. The U.S. orchestras we have managed to record have come with significant funding. But not all considerations are financial. I have to gaze into my crystal ball and guess whether a given program of music or a given artist is likely to have a sizeable enough audience to make a profit for the company. Our batting has been better than average, but I'm not misled: every decision is Russian roulette."

Did he ever record anything suggested by his customers?

"There have been numerous customer requests for pieces of music that we planned to do anyway. In one case a fan recommended an artist (the Japanese pianist Minoru Nojima) whom we have recorded twice. On customer response cards, we get two general types of comments: (1) that we should record all the standard repertoire, Beethoven symphonies, etc.; and (2) that we should avoid standard repertoire at all cost. Our pattern, which we plan to continue, is to do some obscure music - world premiere recordings whenever possible - and some standard, when we feel we can deliver unusual musical and sonic values. We have no patience with nut-fringe audiophiles who listen only to 40-year-old recordings, who think, and say out loud, 'everything good has already been done.'"

I asked Henderson to look back on the past two decades and list what he thought were RR's greatest accomplishments. And biggest mistakes.

"Recording, in the nick of time in some cases," he replied, "senior musicians near the end of their careers (Eileen Farrell, Robert Farnon, Malcolm Arnold, Frederick Fennell, Clark Terry, Ruggiero Ricci). Our biggest fiscal mistakes involve some of these same artists, whose audience is dead or dying. My partners stopped me from looking up Doris Day."

Henderson prides himself on remaining calm at recording sessions when everyone else is going into hysterics. But he admits to "losing it" once, along with Eileen Farrell.

"This dear lady," he told me, "whose irresistible singing brought me around to opera - the last kind of classical music I came to enjoy - admits to crying easily. She told me she could never have sung "Madama Butterfly" onstage because she wouldn't have been able to hold back the tears. At the end of her last take of Harold Arlen's "Last Night When We Were Young," in my earphones I heard her sobbing helplessly. The performance was saved, but I now find it hard to hear it without puddling up."

What will happen to Reference Recordings in the next 20 years?

"I can't predict with any certainty what we'll encounter NEXT year," Henderson confessed. "I'm a good deal more certain that, by 2016, our planet will have established unequivocal contact with extraterrestrial intelligence than I am about any aspect of this volatile business."

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