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Conscious Choice Chicago Dec. 2003

December 2003

A Classic Among the Classics
Jim Ginsburg put Chicago on the classical music map with his Cedille Records label

by Garaud MacTaggart

Chicago, in addition to its long history as one of America’s prime breeding grounds for renown jazz and blues players, has a well deserved reputation for developing some of this country’s finest contemporary classical composers and musicians. Once these artists develop however, they need outlets to display and nurture their talents.

That is why it’s so important for the development of various venues -- be they clubs, halls, radio stations, or record companies -- to allow these artists to showcase their sonic wares and keep on growing. Jim Ginsburg is one of those brave souls who seized the marketplace to support his passion. This is a man who kept postponing his law degree to keep the classical record label he started -- Cedille Records (pronounced sadie) -- from going belly up.

In the late 1980s, while attending the University of Chicago in preparation for a career as a lawyer, Ginsburg took a few music classes, wrote occasional reviews for the American Record Guide, and worked at WFMT-FM. The idea for creating Cedille Records came about in 1989, shortly after he attended (and was impressed by) a concert from the Chicago based pianist Dmitry Paperno. Ginsburg actively and persuasively lobbied with Paperno to record an album and the resulting project, "Dmitry Paperno Plays Russian Piano Music" ended up garnering favorable reviews from a number of critics.

Ginsburg’s mission then became clear. As he noted in an interview with Conscious Choice, Ginsburg wanted "to record the superb Chicago artists whom other American labels, mostly headquartered on the East and West coasts, were overlooking."

Great ideas often require great leaps of faith and the budding entrepreneur then left his law books behind and began working as "a one-man shop," setting up studio time (usually at WFMT), consulting with artists about the music to be recorded, and hiring an engineer, PR agent, graphic designer, etc., for each individual project.

In 1993, after having arranged the financing for the first few albums in Cedille’s catalog, it became apparent to Ginsburg that if Cedille was to survive as a record company, the costs associated with recording, packaging, and distributing had to be augmented by alternate sources of funding. According to Ginsburg, Herman Krawitz, the president of New World Records, "was kind enough to give me free advice on taking Cedille not-for-profit."

The grants and other sources of funding allowed by Cedille’s new tax status -- as part of the newly formed Chicago Classical Recording Foundation -- created opportunities for Ginsburg to record productions of symphonic and operatic scores with some of Chicago’s larger classical organizations. Collaborations between the label and larger ensembles include conductor Paul Freeman’s excellent three volume African Heritage Symphonic Series with the Chicago Sinfonietta; two highly regarded opera recordings with the Chicago Opera Theater (Gian Carlo Menotti’s "The Medium" and Robert Kurka’s "The Good Soldier Schweik"); and a fine trio of albums featuring soprano Patrice Michaels with the Chicago Baroque Ensemble.

While some of Ginsburg’s earliest ventures for Cedille were inspired as a result of his own interests, he noted that "Musicians usually come to me with their recording ideas." Such was the case for a project with the Grant Park Orchestra when Jim Palermo, the general director of the Grant Park Music Festival phoned Ginsburg to pitch a program featuring organist David Schrader that Cedille eventually released as "American Works for Organ and Orchestra."

Under Ginsburg’s guidance Cedille has recorded a number of works by modern American composers with significant ties to Chicago including Leo Sowerby, Frank Ferko, Rudolph Ganz, and John LaMontaine. Many of the individual musicians heard on Cedille’s projects are drawn from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) and/or the area’s academic community.

Among the performers heard in the label’s offerings are the CSO’s Alex Klein (oboe), Mathieu Dufour (flute) and John Bruce Yeh (clarinet) in addition to the composer/pianist Easley Blackwood (a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago with whom Ginsburg studied briefly), violinist extraordinaire Rachel Barton (a member of the board of trustees at the Music Institute of Chicago) and the aforementioned Paperno (on DePaul University’s staff), and Schrader (from the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University).

Despite Ginsburg’s personal tastes that lean toward tonality -- that is compositions with a more melodic content -- he doesn’t shy away from recording artists who stride on the cutting edge of modern music and embrace material that may be more challenging to digest. This explains Cedille’s recent three-album deal with eighth blackbird, a fairly new (founded in 1996) sextet whose adventurous programming and vibrant performances have won them numerous awards and drawn favorable comparisons to the Kronos Quartet.

Garaud MacTaggart writes about music for a number of publications and has edited the Music Hound Guide to Classical Music which is slated to be published this fall/winter.