When James Ginsburg founded Cedille Records in 1989 at the ripe age of 24, the classical record industry was bustling with activity. Four labels dominated the field: Deutsche Grammophon, Decca (London), Columbia and RCA Victor. In the quarter-century since, those labels have had a mighty fall. Multiple mergers, acquisitions, corporate shifts and free music downloading have rendered all four shadows of their former selves.
The one that remains, gaining in strength and stature each year, is tiny Cedille. After years of issuing well-reviewed releases that made a minor splash, Cedille recordings, in recent years, have garnered six Grammy nominations and taken home the prize three times, all for recordings by the new-music sextet, eighth blackbird. Its latest recording, “meanwhile,” captured top honors at last week’s ceremony for Best Chamber Music/ Small Ensemble Performance while “Lonely Motel” won in 2012.
In addition to its roster of fine Chicago musicians and composers, Cedille’s catalog now boasts top young Chicago artists who are crafting major music careers and gaining national media attention: Rachel Barton Pine, Jennifer Koh, The Pacifica Quartet, eighth blackbird, The Lincoln Trio and Wendy Warner.
A full listing of Cedille’s distinguished artist roster can be found on its website at www.cedillerecords.org.
Ginsburg is even making news of his own. Not content simply with his roles of record executive, producer and chief engineer, he has a new mountain to climb: host of a program on WFMT highlighting Cedille artists and their discography.
“Cedille Chicago Presents” airs each Wednesday evening at 10 p.m. as well as streaming live at wfmt.com. The station has hosted Cedille Day each May for the past three years. Ginsburg is ever the promoter of both his artists and his vision.
That vision, unchanged since the label’s founding, is to preserve Chicago’s classical music heritage and to feature excellent Chicago-area musicians and composers “performing important music overlooked by the major labels.” Even now, Cedille rarely records mainstream masterworks and then only in distinctive interpretations by its artists.
Ginsburg, now 47, got the music bug while working at Nonesuch Records as a summer intern in 1986 and from writing record reviews for American Record Guide. Cedille’s first release (Dmitry Paperno playing Russian Piano Music) came out while he was enrolled at the University of Chicago Law School. Cedille soon became a consuming passion and he dropped his legal studies.
Running a record label is an expensive undertaking. After five years, Ginsburg chose an innovative approach to enable him to produce more recordings and larger projects. Cedille was reconstituted in 1994 as a not-for-profit label under the auspices of The Chicago Classical Recording Foundation.
The move permits Ginsburg to solicit donations and foundation grants to sponsor his ambitions. Recently, the foundation received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Aaron Copeland Fund for Music.
Ever the entrepreneur, Ginsburg even offers music lovers subscriptions to the label. Subscribers automatically receive each new release (the catalog now numbers close to 140 releases) at a discounted price of $10 plus shipping.
Such moves have insured Cedille’s expansion as well as its survival. They have enabled Ginsburg to upgrade the quality of the CD cover artwork, accompanying booklet and overall production values.
Highly-acclaimed recordings in recent years have brought a new level of success. While commercial labels might issue 30 or more recordings a year, Cedille has heretofore devoted its full attention each year to just six to nine projects. Sales have doubled in the past five years to more than 20,000 discs annually.
Plans are to release nine new CDs this year. The newest, at the end of this month, Celloquy, features the world-premiere recording of composer Lera Auerbach’s “24 Preludes with Postlude” with cellist Ani Aznavoourian and Auerbach on piano.
While Ginsburg’s official title is President, he admits his greatest satisfaction comes from being a producer, helping shape future repertoire with artists and sitting at the controls for every studio session. He claims his achievement is “letting the world know the quality of what we have here.”
A Tribune Chicagoan of the Year in 2009, Ginsburg’s vision and dedication have made a lasting contribution not just in Chicago but throughout the universal realm of Music.