Blue Griffin Records offers outlet for local classical talent
By LAWRENCE COSENTINO
In the hypersensitive world of classical music, a concert ticket is almost the same thing as a lottery ticket. For each lucky stiff who gets a pass to the paradise of optimal conditions, a hundred other listeners end up dealing with peripheral seats, dry-hacking neighbors and page-crinkling program readers, not to mention off-night-having musicians.
Last year, Lansing pianist and recording engineer Sergei Kvitko set out to equalize the odds by starting his own classical music label, Blue Griffin Records. The venture is touchingly small-scaled, if not downright quixotic, under the current imperium of pop culture. Nevertheless, Kvitko has already managed to produce five impressive CDs, all but one of which were recorded here in Lansing (see reviews below).
The young label requires Kvitko to wear two hats. As a producer, he offers a respectful, serious showcase for his musicians talents in a shriveling and driveling classical market. He may not sell tens of thousands of CDs, but low overhead means he doesn’t have to. That puts Kvitko among a dwindling few classical label bosses who don’t ask their artists to perform duets with Celine Dion, take their shirts off, be 13-year-old girls, or any combination thereof.
Small, independent backyard gardens like Kvitko’s have increasingly become lifelines between classical music lovers and the undiluted real deal. He is quick to point out the sadly untapped reservoir of passionate talent like his Chopin pianist Peter Miyamoto. With a still-sizable (yet parched and dwindling) Aral Sea of classical music lovers still out there, it’s particularly galling that the major labels have stepped on the hose by eliminating their classical divisions entirely or signing only superstars and freaks.
So Kvitko carries on his guerrilla campaign with whatever resources he can scrounge together. His post as organist at First Presbyterian’s Molly Grove Chapel, home to the Greater Lansing Symphony’s chamber concerts, affords him access to a ready-made studio. An equipment-cluttered basement serves as his sonic laboratory, and a growing reputation ensures that a continuous flow of artists seek out his services.
Musicians seek him out in part because he wears his second hat – that of recording engineer – even more proudly than that of producer.
‘It’s fascinating work – like painting in sound,” he grins. Each recording brings him closer to the elusive goal of recreating the intensity of a live performance in a polished, clean recording – a CD that, as Kvitko says, can be listened to repeatedly “without thinking that in 2.3 seconds someone’s going to sneeze.”
“The recording is as much my performance as the musician’s,” states Kvitko. As an accomplished scholar-pianist, he has no trouble twiddling the knobs while eyeballing both the musical score and the performer with equal scrutiny. As a result, his comments at a session are liable to be much more pointed and insightful than “closer to the mike, please.”
“I try to be gentle,” he says, “but there are times when I have to say, Do you really want to play it this way?.”
The performers don’t mind, especially when they hear the finished product. Kvitko’s trained musical ear and mastery of recording technology make him a formidable ally. “We’re going to Hell for this,” said one astonished pianist upon hearing the seamless miracles Kvitko was able to work upon his performance. “It is a bit like playing God,” Kvitko admits with a Faustian smile.
While Kvitko is proud of his one-man outfit, he harbors no delusions of grandeur. A small label has inherent limitations as well as unique rewards, and Kvitko insists it won’t trouble him if and when Blue Griffin artists make the big time and go to a major label. “Ill just say, This famous guy’s first recording was for my label, now he’s on Sony and he’s unhappy.”
On balance, Blue Griffin’s output thus far compares favorably with that of any of the majors. Not only are the performances and recordings first-rate, the liner notes (usually by the artists themselves) are excellent and the packaging is professional and gimmick-free (the oddball “Andrej and Viktor” CD aside).
Here is a quick survey:
Peter Miyamoto (piano), “Chopin: Ballades and Fantasies.”
This disc is a great, big, steaming sacrifice to the rumbling god of Steinway, the most impressive of Blue Griffin’s recordings to date. It’s a showcase for the phenomenal pianism of Peter Miyamoto, formerly on the faculty at MSU and now based on the West Coast (apparently the Great Lakes couldn’t provide crashing waves big enough for his cover shot). Miyamoto’s Chopin is so good it makes the pupils dilate; it combines the restless glitter of moonlight with the tension of a suspension-bridge cable.
Nicholas Roth (piano), “Schumann Novelletten, Op. 21.”
Roth was something of a sensation when he studied under Michigan State’s Ralph Votapek in the 90s. In the first Blue Griffin release, he spreads his smooth technique over a set of exuberant pieces by a young and restless Schumann, and both seem as eager to briskly move things along as they are to impress.
Nicholas Roth (piano), “The Russian Album.”
Here Roth sounds out a rugged range of romantic works from Scriabin (Sonata-Fantasy #2), Taneyev (Prelude and Fugue, Op. 29), Blumenfeld (Etude for Left Hand), and Rachmaninoff (Sonata No. 1), his barely-quivering pauses leaving just as deep an impression as his reckless, headlong tumbles.
Suren Bagratuni (cello) and Adrian Oetiker (piano), “Music for Cello and Piano.”
This introspective, rainy day recital brings together Swiss pianist Oetiker with MSU cello professor Bagratuni. The brooding Rachmaninoff Op. 19 Sonata is bookended by bittersweet pieces by Debussy (“Sonata in D Minor”) and
Stravinsky (“Suite Italienne”). Every detail, especially in the quieter moments, is lovingly massaged to life, and the unicycle-tricky balance between cello and piano is deftly sustained.
Andrej Kurti (violin) and Viktor Izur (cello), “The Entertainers.”
This is definitely the wild card in Blue Griffin’s deck, a freaky journey deep into the Slavic soul – including that incomprehensible corner that can’t stop obsessing over heavy American rock from 30 years ago. “Andrej and Viktor” are omnivirtuosos from the former Yugoslavia who are game for anything with a hook, whether it’s Scott Joplin, traditional Slavic dances, Rimsky-Korsakov or Pink Floyd. Who else would dare to forcibly repatriate the “Bohemian Rhapsody” to its homeland? You laugh, you groan, but by the time these madmen launch into an epic 10-minute fantasia on Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” you submit.