Boston Symphony Orchestra Gets Grammy Nods For Shostakovich Recordings

Feb 13, 2017
Originally published on February 10, 2017 3:35 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This year's Grammy Award winners will be announced Sunday, and you might be aware that most of your favorite pop songs have been edited, overdubbed and mixed within an inch of their lives. But did you know that that's also true for some top classical recordings? The Boston Symphony Orchestra is up for two Grammys this year - best orchestral performance and best engineered album. Andrea Shea of member station WBUR takes us behind the scenes to hear how the symphony sausage is made.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA'S PERFORMANCE OF DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH'S "SYMPHONY NO. 8")

ANDREA SHEA, BYLINE: On a rainy afternoon, Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Andris Nelsons launches the musicians into a 70-minute performance of Dmitri Shostakovich's 8th symphony.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA'S PERFORMANCE OF DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH'S "SYMPHONY NO. 8")

SHEA: Down in Symphony Hall's cavernous basement, a seasoned production team is listening intently and scribbling notes in the orchestra's own recording studio. BSO managing director Mark Volpe says these pros are key to creating an album that stands out.

MARK VOLPE: You can have the greatest performance, but, man, if your engineer and your technicians and your guys who are doing the mastering aren't up to it, doesn't matter.

SHAWN MURPHY: It actually feels like he's moving this along a little faster than yesterday too, doesn't it?

SHEA: Shawn Murphy has been producing classical recordings, including film scores with Hollywood composer John Williams, for more than 30 years. But with most of those, the musicians are in a sound stage and can start and stop to retake sections. This is a concert performance in front of an audience.

MURPHY: There are no overdubs, but there are multiple performances. And so we edit based on artistic choices - and sometimes technical choices - based on best performances.

SHEA: This is one of four performances Murphy and his team will record over a few days. Then they and the BSO's music director will choose the best parts from each that will ultimately be mixed and edited together so they sound like one knockout concert.

MURPHY: Editorially, you know, these can be quite intense. Some of these symphonies have hundreds and hundreds of edits.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA'S PERFORMANCE OF DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH'S "SYMPHONY NO. 8")

MURPHY: Pretty - pretty great.

SHEA: At the end of the piece, Murphy puts down his pencil...

MURPHY: Now we wait.

SHEA: For conductor Andris Nelsons. Before he gets here, BSO principle flutist Elizabeth Rowe rushes in.

ELIZABETH ROWE: I just wanted to alert you to my big boo-boo in the fifth movement.

MURPHY: (Laughter) Oh.

ROWE: I'm sure you heard it. It was - seemed big to me, but it went by fast.

MURPHY: Do you remember the rehearsal number?

SHEA: In addition to the musician's gaffes, there are of course the dreaded audience coughs. But BSO engineer Nick Squire can remove them using a program called renovator. He demonstrates.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA'S PERFORMANCE OF DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH'S "SYMPHONY NO. 8")

NICK SQUIRE: Obviously, there's three or four coughs in a row, which really kind of ruin that flute moment. And this is just a quick demo of what we can hopefully do to save the performance.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA'S PERFORMANCE OF DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH'S "SYMPHONY NO. 8")

SHEA: But Squire says there's a reason the BSO team is recording live.

SQUIRE: There is moments where it's very tense and everyone, I think, is just sitting on edge. And finally, the music releases and you hear 2,600 people breathe at once as, you know, they're moved by this beautiful music. And I think that's what makes some of these recordings so magical.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA'S PERFORMANCE OF DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH'S "SYMPHONY NO. 8")

SHEA: Finally, conductor Andris Nelsons comes down to the studio to compare sessions after a quick change from his suit to his hoodie.

ANDRIS NELSONS: I personally prefer the - yesterday (unintelligible) before listening, you know?

MURPHY: Right. I was going to say, let's listen and see what you think.

SHEA: Listening to the playback, Nelsons confirms his first impression.

NELSONS: This is better but except the coughs, no? The coughs are better as well.

SHEA: For the final recording, Nelsons and the team choose two of the four performances as being the best, with bits and pieces of the other two edited in - minus the coughs For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea in Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA'S PERFORMANCE OF DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH'S "SYMPHONY NO. 8") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.