Music

Beautiful harmony

A visionary label puts Canadian musicians first

DIANE TURBIDE February 10 1997
Music

Beautiful harmony

A visionary label puts Canadian musicians first

DIANE TURBIDE February 10 1997

Beautiful harmony

Music

A visionary label puts Canadian musicians first

DIANE TURBIDE

A dozen years ago, violinist Angèle Dubeau had just spent a day listening to live music at the Festival International de Lanaudière, an annual event in Joliette, Que. She needed a lift back to Montreal, and a friend found her one with Mario Labbé.

Labbé, who had brought the Dave Brubeck jazz quartet to the festival, discovered that the talented musician in his car was looking for a new agent. Over the next three years,

Labbé became Dubeau’s manager, then her husband, then her producer when he formed the classical recording label Analekta in 1988. “It was a classic story, the violinist and the impresario,” Dubeau, 34, recalls with a laugh.

You might say it was a marriage made in music heaven: Analekta has since become the country’s largest indigenous producer of classical music, and Dubeau its best-selling artist.

At a time when most classical recordings—Canadian or international— sell between 1,000 to 2,000 CDs a year at best, the Quebec-born violinist racked up sales of 50,000 copies for her collection of lullabies, La Ronde des Berceuses, in 1995 alone, making her the first living Canadian soloist to go gold (Glenn Gould did so posthumously). And within 10 days of its launch last September, music lovers picked up more than 5,000 copies of her most recent release, Opera for Two—a collection of aria transcriptions played by Dubeau and flutist Alain Marion. Meanwhile, Analekta has produced an impressive catalogue of nearly 150 recordings—including the works of well-known pianists Anton Kuerti and André Laplante and prominent organist Bernard Lagacé—and launched an ambitious marketing campaign in Canada and the United States. In both 1995 and ’96, the company achieved sales of more than 200,000 recordings. “Canadian musicians play and are respected around the world,” says Labbé. “But you have to export yourself in order to make a living.”

Gaspé-born, 43-year-old Labbé—who, before Analekta, brought such acts as the Kirov Ballet and the Red Army Chorus to Canada—is just the man to put Canadian

classical artists on the international map. “Mario is the most active, enterprising and daring Canadian producer,” says Kuerti. “He puts to shame all the branch-plant operations, who haven’t the slightest interest in Canadian musicians, except for a handful of stars.” In fact, Labbé’s main impetus for starting Analekta was Dubeau’s treatment by one of those branch plants. The foreign-owned record company, whom the couple decline to name, had put Dubeau “on hold” for a year, promising her a recording contract and asking her not to sign with another label. Dubeau agreed, but at the end of the year, the company told her that it was no longer interested in “regional” artists, and suggested that she move to New York City. Labbé still fumes thinking about it. “Well, I guess the ‘regional’ artist has done pretty well,” he says, citing Dubeau’s

total sales of more than 100,000 recordings.

Dubeau, who is practically a household name in Quebec, has benefited from her profile as a broadcaster as well as a musician. She is in the midst of her third season as host of Faites vos gammes (Do Your Scales), a weekly TV show on Radio-Canada that promotes classical music by turning the limelight on performers under 21, and by inviting celebrities who are also amateur musicians to appear on the show. Recently, Quebec Liberal MLA John Ciaccia performed a Verdi piano piece and Olympic speed skater Sylvie Daigle played Chopin. Dubeau is also in the process of forming an all-female chamber orchestra called La Pieta, after the name of the orphanage where Vivaldi conducted a young women’s orchestra and wrote much of his music. Dubeau, who has performed in 27 countries and received an Order of Canada for her efforts to promote classical music, says that she now can choose her engagements, which allows her to spend more time with her four-year-old daughter, Marie. “I can let my CDs act as my calling cards in different countries,” she says.

Until the arrival of Analekta, only a handful of the country’s classical acts—including Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, cellist Ofra Harnoy and singer Ben Heppner—were able to get that kind of exposure, by virtue of their contracts with major international labels. But Analekta, the feisty independent, is insistent on getting music out to the marketplace, both at home and abroad—a problem that has consistently bedevilled other small classical music producers in Canada. (After Analekta, the secondbiggest indigenous prori ducer of classical mu« sic is the CBC, whose E CDs are distributed by Japanese-owned Denon.) As Labbé points out, “You can have wonderful artists, but if you can’t find their works in the stores, what’s the point?” In 1992, Analekta established its own distribution arm to handle both its own and other companies’ products. Analekta Distribution is headed by Pierre Boivin, former owner of the music-store chain Kébec Disque. In late 1995, Analekta launched the Fleur de Lys series in the United States, packaging 50 recordings with a uniform design incorporating paintings from the Musée du Québec in the provincial capital for album covers. To

date, more than 50,000 CDs in the series have sold south of the border, and the company has since decided to use the same design for all its recordings. As well, the firm has struck distribution agreements in Britain, France, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark and Greece.

That distribution network is available to both newer and established artists. In the fall, the Toronto-based Gryphon Trio released its first CD with the company, a collection of works by Haydn. Meanwhile, Analekta scored a coup in obtaining the internationally acclaimed Kuerti’s 1974-1975 recording of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas, which it remastered and reissued in a 10-CD box set in November. The company is backing the release with a promotion campaign costing more than $50,000. “That’s a huge budget,” says Kuerti, “and to

my knowledge it’s never been done by a Canadian company for a Canadian artist.” The set has received a new round of raves in Canada and abroad, and remains a Top 10 classical seller at Montreal’s largest record stores, Archambault and the HMV superstore.

More than half of Analekta’s total sales have been in Quebec. (In fact, Quebec accounts for more than 50 per cent of classical music sales in Canada overall.) Labbé says that sales in English Canada are picking up, but so far have been underwhelming. Even in the world of music, which theoretically transcends language, it seems that there are two solitudes. Labbé believes that the way for Analekta artists to achieve stronger sales in English Canada is through higher international profiles. “We are a Canadian company but, marketing-wise, if you want to sell

records in English Canada, you’re better off being international. If you get good reviews in the international magazines, or place advertising in the international edition of Gramophone or CD Review, then the sales start picking up in Toronto and other cities.”

Labbé’s other beef with English Canada has to do with the domestic recording industry’s Juno Awards, for which Analekta releases have never been nominated. For the second year in a row, the company is boycotting the Junos, coming up on March 9, because it feels the selection process is unfair. Labbé argues that sales volumes ought to figure in the process, as a measure of the work’s merit. (Currently, a crosscountry jury of critics independently ranks their favorite recordings, with the combined tallies producing a winner.) Something is amiss, Labbé says, if his products can win so many Félix prizes—Quebec’s equivalent of the Junos—while not garnering a single citation in English Canada.

Analekta takes pride in being able to maintain steady sales despite a major recession in North American music retailing. And Labbé plans to release another 28 CDs this year—including a Kuerti Chopin disc and Dubeau playing two Mendelssohn concertos—an ambitious program even in times of brisk sales. “It’s a lot,” says the ebullient Labbé, “but they’re so fabulous, I can’t bear to cut any of them.” □

Beethoven reignites a pianist's career

In the age of the CD, digital remastering of taped performances is commonplace. But Toronto pianist Anton Kuerti’s legendary 1974-1975 recordings of Beethoven’s 32 sonatas have had a more eventful history than most. The tapes were subjected to not only a prolonged legal battle but also an intensive salvage operation that included, among other things, baking in a food dehydrator. Rereleased by Analekta in November, 1996, as a 10-CD package, the set has won accolades and, even priced at $80 to $105, made classical best-seller lists. “Modern technology doesn't always improve things, but in this case it has,” says Kuerti, 58. “It’s very gratifying to see that something with such a muddled history is alive again.” Originally issued by Aquitaine Records in Canada and Columbia-Odyssey (now Sony Classical) in the United States, the record-

ings earned rapturous reviews ("this complete set is, spiritually, the most all-encompassing and convincing of all,” said a Munich music publication). But by 1984, the music had become the focus of a suit by Kuerti for control of the tapes against Aquitaine’s owner, Eleanor Sniderman. In 1990, Kuerti settled out of court, got the tapes and enlisted the help of his friend Jacob Harnoy, an audio restoration specialist and father of cellist Ofra, to repair the defective tapes and transfer them to CDs.

That battle is only one episode in Kuerti’s idiosyncratic career. As well as performing and composing music, he helped found the Festival of the Sound summer music event in Parry Sound, Ont., in 1980, ran unsuccessfully as an NDP candidate in the 1988 federal election and taught music at the University of Toronto. He continues to write

about arts-related matters in various publications, decrying in a recent commentary the greed, “monstrous gains” and esthetic compromises of the high-priced “Three Tenors” stadium concerts. “Something has to happen, emotionally, spiritually and physically, in real time, between those on stage and those who have come to enjoy,” he wrote. “This is inconceivable in a stadium where it would be nigh impossible even to notice whether the tenors were just lipsynching (as Pavarotti has actually done in the past) to their own CDs.”

Kuerti, who lives in Toronto with his cellist wife, Kristine Bogyo, and two sons, Julian, 20, and Rafael, 16, spends about one-third of his time on tour. This season’s bookings will take him to Germany, France, Italy, Hawaii and Brazil, as well as major cities in the United States. And this summer, he is scheduled for a major performance at Quebec's Festival International de Lanaudière.

Meanwhile, the renowned pianist has continued to add to his discography, releasing six CDs on various labels since the fall of 1995. This year, Analekta will issue two new Kuerti recordings, of Chopin and Schumann. Often described as underappreciated, Anton Kuerti is experiencing a boom— with a little help from Beethoven and a Montreal record company.

D.T.