Eleanor Sniderman, Canada’s onewoman band in the business of recording classical music, is pacing the Manta Sound recording studio. In the costly world of the control booth, the only thing accumulating faster than dust on the studio’s two-inch tapes are her recording costs, rising to the tune of $120 per hour. Through the booth window she watches as the 36 members of the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus, eager to begin recording the world premiere of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Chip and His Dog, run amok over microphone cables. But their conductor,
Dr. Derek Holman, is still at Toronto International Airport, in the clutches of the RCMP. In his haste to get from plane to studio, the kinetic musician with bottle-glass spectacles dashed through an open door into a “Restricted” area, and was immediately suspected of... smuggling drugs? So, like a bride too proud to admit to the packed church that she has been stood up, Sniderman holds her head erect and confidently awaits the release of her musician.
With more than 30 Canadian classical albums already pressed and selling in record stores across the country, El22 eanor Sniderman is almost “ immune to crisis. Her first o album (which she produced \ for the Boot label), a collection of guitar music by Liona Boyd, taught her to keep the level head that, in four short years, has made her own company, Aquitane, the leading classical music production company in Canada. “I realized very quickly that there are some things harder than having a baby,” says the mother of two grown-up sons, awarding the listener with a grin. “It’s only in the studio that you find out that the musicians don’t play music the way it sounds in your head, but the way it sounds in theirs.” When Boyd’s first test pressing came back, the sound on the record was nothing like the music the guitarist had played. “It was absolutely terrible,” Sniderman recalls, “like someone eating cornflakes in the
background while scrunching sheets of paper.”
The second test pressing also failed to satisfy, as did the third. Undaunted, Sniderman continued to demand a better product even after recording executives politely suggested to her that she get out of the business. But they were
less polite with her husband Sam Sniderman, better known as “Sam the Record Man” (Canada’s leading record retailer), with their suggestion “Get your wife off our backs!”
In the end, Mrs. Sniderman prevailed. The pressing managers found that the only way to get rid of this pest was to reach the quality she demanded, and she accepted their work at last—on the 18th test pressing.
Going into a recording studio is no less fraught with turmoil. “It’s like boarding a plane,” she says, as the minutes continue to tick by at Manta Sound.
“If you’re going to worry, do it beforehand because it’s too late once you’re there.” And sure enough,Holman soon crashes through the studio doors, eager to make up for the 90 lost and expensive minutes. “I’ll give the RCMP a credit on the cover,” is all the unflappable Sniderman has to say as she manoeuvres him gracefully into the recording areas.
From benchmark recordings such as the 14-record set of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas performed by Anton Kuerti, to indulgences such as classical music interpreted by a kazoo ensemble, her recordings are almost beyond comparison with the lesser achievements of other Canadian classical record makers. Not that she plays the piano, bows a fiddle or sings herself (“though I hum, whistle and play heartstrings like anything”)—her prowess is as a packager of musical dreams.
The accomplishments of this tiny musical fief—for Eleanor, single-handedly, is Aquitane—reflect not only gritty determination, but the feelings of a nationalist fed up with rummaging through alien vinyl for Canadian cultural gems. “It’s bad enough that we ship out close to $150 million a year to pay for foreign records,” she says, with the fluency of one who has spoken this lament too many times. “The tragedy is that we export our artists too, many for keeps, just because there’s not enough to keep them busy working at home.” There is little prospect of improvement, she believes, recalling her last, pre-election visit to Ottawa where she was informed: “The government isn’t interested in records—it’s a drug-related industry, you know.”
“And that,” she says tartly, smacking her hand on the table with uncharacteristic emotion, as if flattening a roach, “is why only in Canada can an opera singer of Maureen Forrester’s stature not have her own record in the stores. Honestly, I feel more like an archivist than anything else. I have to make these recordings because no one else will. Right now, today, there
are 20 records I should be making.”
Where business is concerned, Sniderman is as tough as her namesake, the 12th-century Eleanor of Aquitane, queen of France first, then of England. Centuries later the queen represented an ideal for the young Eleanor Koldofsky, for whom Aquitane records may be a way of willing Eleanor back to life.
On one wall of Sniderman’s vast study, in her Mediterranean-style Toronto home, hangs an antique map of
Aquitane. Prominent in the living room is a lavish tome on the woman who was twice queen and, in Sniderman’s eyes, “one of the early patrons of the arts, a powerful woman who’d still be modern in the year 10,000.”
But if Eleanor Sniderman cherishes her title as a top classical record producer, the major foreign record companies dismiss it as a hollow honor. Classical records, to them, are more a nuisance than a profit-maker, representing (in the case of CBS) a mere six to seven per cent of its total sales.
“I’ve got the largest classical selection in North America,” says Sam Sniderman, “but it’s still only seven to eight per cent of my sales. Classical records are so unprofitable that both RCA and CBS once considered dropping them altogether.”
In Canada, according to CBS VicePresident Stan Kulin, a classical record does well to sell 5,000 copies, and is judged excellent at 10,000—and Mrs. Sniderman knows it. “So when I told Sam that Liona Boyd’s album was going to sell 25,000 copies, he must have thought, ‘poor little woman!’ ”
He did more than think it, Sam admits. He informed his wife, straight out, that she was crazy. But the record sold more than 27,000 copies in five years—a success despite her millionaire husband and not, as cynics would have it, because of him.
“One day I told Sam and my two boys, ‘I’m finished cooking, guys. I’m doing something for myself,” she says. “So I guess it was personal eccentricity that made me do it. To say nothing of personal myth-making—since that time, she has sunk more than $150,000 into her 30-odd albums.
If accolades were gold, however, she would already be amply rewarded for her investments. The praise Musicanada magazine lavished on Kuerti’s Beethoven sonatas ranged from “quite remarkable” to “the quality is positively astonishing.” Aquitane won a Juno Award for the sonatas, and this year Sniderman received the Grand
Prix du Disque (from the Canadian Music Council in Ottawa) for Best Solo Recording in 1978, with cellist Gisela Depkat. But sweetest of all was the cable she received from Deutsche Grammophon’s head office in Hamburg—“Congratulations”—which hailed the Kuerti recordings. Beams Sam Sniderman proudly, “They couldn’t understand how Eleanor had achieved that quality outside Hamburg. Well, she simply brought the Canadian plants up to a level of excellence they never thought
they could reach. Now, even Deutsche Grammophon does some of its pressing in Toronto.”
Aquitane will keep recording “until all my money is gone,” Eleanor Sniderman says quietly, without any remorse for her fiscal self-injury. “I don’t know how many records I sell. It certainly doesn’t cover my expenses so why depress myself with figures? I’ve proved that beautiful, world-class records can be made in Canada and I’ll keep on making the best I can—records for Canada, not for some sophisticated, six-byeight-mile stretch of Toronto.”
Sam Sniderman wryly awaits the inevitable. “Each record Eleanor makes is a crisis, an event to be lived through,” he chuckles, “and I love it.” There was the recording session that stopped when the performers decided they absolutely needed a gong, so she quickly “liberated” one from a nearby Chinese restaurant.
Sniderman’s only regret, and it’s one felt deeply, is that she’ll never record with an orchestra. The punitive recording rates charged by the American Fedi eration of Musicians of the United
States and Canada make it just as expensive for the Regina Symphony to record for the Canadian market as for the New York Philharmonic to record for the world. “The only reason the Toronto Symphony recorded for CBS last time was because their Women’s Committee gave CBS $100,000 toward the cost—$12 per second. I could make one record with an orchestra and that would be the end of me,” she says, regretful that she can’t provide soloists such as Louis Quilico or Gisela Depkat, “who cry out
for an orchestra to set them off,” with more than piano accompaniment.
But even so, says Guy Huot, secretary-general of the Canadian Music Council in Ottawa, an Aquitane recording is “vital to a performer’s career. Two records achieve as much as three Carnegie Hall appearances, I guess. A record—except for ones privately made—tells prospective agents or managers that this musician is on his way. It’s a gilt-edged calling card.”
In addition to a special album of Maureen Forrester singing favorite carols from around the world which have been piling up like drifts in Sniderman’s head, she’s planning to release a calling card by harpist Judy Loman in time for Christmas. Black vinyl is the wave of the future, she feels, “for the politics of a country is merely its entertainment; music, art and dance are its culture— the lasting part. Nobody will remember who was Toronto’s mayor back in 1979. But who will ever forget Maureen?” Aquitane, certainly, will brook no cultural lapses. “I get called an eccentric, a wealthy dilettante, an egotistical amateur and a lot of other things,” she says, “but I have every intention of recording everything.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.