At Cedille Records, 25 Years Rounded By A Little Curve

Cedille Records founder James Ginsburg quit law school to focus on his label, which is marking its 25th anniversary.  (Photo by Nat Silverman)
Cedille Records founder James Ginsburg quit law school to focus on his label, which is marking its 25th anniversary.
(Photo by Nat Silverman)
By Kyle MacMillan

CHICAGO – Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, Ravel’s Bolero or Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons: Many classical labels continue to release new recordings of such familiar stand-bys even though dozens of versions already exist and the latest interpretations sometimes have little fresh or distinctive to say.

Cedille logoCedille Records, which marks its 25th anniversary this year, has chosen a different path. The Chicago-based company prefers to record off-beat and new compositions, and if it does take on a classical stalwart, it likes to package the work in some imaginative, unexpected way.

Cedille Pine Brahms 350A telling example is the company’s best-selling release, which features soloist Rachel Barton Pine in the first-ever pairing of Brahms’ Violin Concerto with the little-known “Hungarian” Concerto of violinist Joseph Joachim, a friend and champion of the famed composer.

Similarly, when the Pacifica Quartet recorded the complete cycle of Shostakovich’s celebrated string quartets, which will be available for the first time as a boxed set this month, it paired each of the 15 works with a quartet by another, less-recognized Soviet composer.

Cedille Pacifica 350Such unusual and critically acclaimed releases go far in explaining how Cedille Records has managed to weather the precarious ups and downs of the classical recording industry and not just survive but thrive for a quarter-century.

During its history, the label has recorded more than 100 performers and composers, ranging from soloists like Pine, violinist Jennifer Koh, soprano Patrice Michaels, and pianist Jorge Federico Osorio to Pacifica, eighth blackbird, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In all, it has sold more than 300,000 albums, not including downloads.

“They would be viewed as sort of a medium-sized label,” says Sean Hickey, vice president of sales and development for Naxos of America, which distributes the company’s recordings, “but I think an American label that has grown in stature and prominence over the last of couple of years.”

Cedille Lullabies 350It helps, he said, that Cedille has had some classical hits lately, including Pine’s Violin Lullabies, which Hickey described as one of Naxos’ biggest recent sellers. Inspired by the birth of Pine’s baby in 2011, the album made its debut last year on both Billboard‘s and Amazon’s classical sales charts in the No. 1 position.

“In a really tough record-selling climate,” Hickey said. “There are a lot of factors that come into play to make a record successful, and Violin Lullabies really had it all, with a lot of different parties working on it to make a success, not the least of which was Rachel, who is a powerhouse of promotion.”

The founder and president of Cedille is James Ginsburg, who graduated from the University of Chicago in 1987, spent two years working in New York City, and then moved back to Chicago in 1989 with the intention of attending law school. In the meantime, drawing on his experience as an intern at Nonesuch Records between his junior and senior years and working on a couple of independent projects for the company, he had the idea of producing a couple of albums on his own.

Cedille Paperno 350Ginsburg contacted an engineer he knew from a stint at his college radio station who was working part-time at Chicago’s WFMT-FM. With the engineer’s help, he zeroed in on noted Ukrainian-born pianist Dmitry Paperno, who was teaching at DePaul University in Chicago, as his first prospective recording artist.

“It took a little while for me to convince him that I was serious about the idea of coaxing him back into the studio after a 10-year absence, but he finally agreed,” Ginsburg said, “and that’s how the first recording came about.”

The release, titled Dmitry Paperno Plays Russian Music, was successful enough, gaining both distribution and critical plaudits, that Ginsburg took time off from law school to produce three more albums.

In the process, he realized that no one was recording the many classical performers and composers who were born or lived in Chicago or had some other significant connections to the city. “That immediately became the niche the label was designed to fill,” Ginsburg said.

Cedille Patrice Michaels 350Soon, he gave up law school entirely to focus on the new label, which he called Cedille, from the cédille accent mark — the curved diacritic under the letter “c” in French words such as façade, giving it a softer sound.

In 1992, he worked with the Chicago Symphony to record Easley Blackwood’s Symphony No. 5 as part of the orchestra’s centennial celebration. He watched Henry Fogel, then the orchestra’s president, find money for the project, and Ginsburg quickly realized that fund-raising was something Cedille, with its focus on promoting Chicago musicians, could do as well.

“It was never a money-making venture from the beginning,” Ginsburg said. “That’s why I realized we had to codify our mission and make it a not-for-profit (organization), in order to continue this.”

[Related story: From 25 years of recording, Cedille founder picks his favorites]

Today, the non-profit label, which operates under the auspices of the foundation Cedille Chicago, has an annual budget of a little more than $1 million. About 20 percent of its revenue derives from album sales, digital downloads, and music streaming, and the rest comes from grants and contributions.

Cedille Pulitzer 350The artists who record for Cedille praise not only the audio quality of the recordings but also the spirit of cooperation that Ginsburg engenders.

“We have a great relationship with Cedille, and it is a real collaboration,” said Sigurbjorn Bernhardsson, a violinist with the Pacifica Quartet, ensemble-in-residence at the University of Chicago. “We brainstorm about which repertoire to record together and every aspect of the recording and the editing process is real teamwork. At this point we know each other very well and there is great trust on both sides.”

Because Ginsburg is so open-minded, composer Stacy Garrop, who is on the faculty at Chicago’s Roosevelt University, always takes her ideas for recordings to Cedille first. Through a roundabout series of circumstances, the company helped broker a commission for her in 2005, and Ginsburg liked the resulting piece enough to record it. In all, Garrop’s works are included on seven Cedille releases.

“I’ve been on a lot of different labels,” she said, “but Cedille is the only one that really involves you from the very beginning to the very end. So, from the first recording session, composers are welcome to attend the recording of their piece and give feedback. Sometimes they even run CD covers by me, so I feel like I’m very much part of the process.”

Cedille Piano Espagnol 350As music streaming and other technological innovations eat into higher-grossing compact-disc sales and digital downloads, classical recording labels are facing more financial pressures than ever before.

“For some of the small labels,” Hickey said, “the boutique labels or labels that have very small resources – and let’s be honest, most of them do – it’s going to be a very, very hard time to survive. This year we’ve seen more changes to the business than any year in the past.”

In part because of Cedille’s diverse catalog of recordings and its strong, loyal collector base, not to mention its non-profit financial structure, Hickey believes the label will be among those that endure.

Ginsburg is optimistic as well. Cedille has been able to hold its own with downloads and compact disc sales, he said, pointing out that CDs of Violin Lullabies sold especially well in part because they have been popular as gifts. “It wasn’t an accident that we released it in time for Mother’s Day,” he said.

“I don’t know what the ultimate life of the label will be,” he said, “but based on the demand, especially from artists who want to be documented on high-quality recordings and disseminated around the world, I’m expecting to be doing this for a long time.”

Kyle MacMillan recently marked his 25th anniversary as a music critic and reporter. After serving 11 years as fine arts critic for the Denver Post, he is now a free-lance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and writes for such national publications as Opera News and The Wall Street Journal.