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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A Galaxy of Stars

Caetano Veloso and Bob Hurwitz. Photo courtesy Nonesuch Records.

By Michael Hill

For 32 years, Robert Hurwitz not only served as president of Nonesuch Records, but also reinvented it from the ground up, along with his staff finding and nurturing the remarkably wide range of artists who make up its roster. A Nonesuch Celebration on April 1 at the Howard Gilman Opera House is a tribute to him. At the center of the evening is Twelve Pieces for Bob, a program of world premiere works for piano by Nonesuch artists—John Adams, Laurie Anderson, Timo Andres, Louis Andriessen, Donnacha Dennehy, Philip Glass, Adam Guettel, Brad Mehldau, Pat Metheny, Randy Newman, Nico Muhly, and Steve Reich—performed by the composers and others. The evening also will include performances by Kronos Quartet, k.d. lang, Mandy Patinkin, Chris Thile, Caetano Veloso, Dawn Upshaw, Stephin Merritt, and others who have worked closely with Bob. Hurwitz, who has studied piano since childhood, has always kept an upright piano in his office, which he finds time to play each day. This program, then, is as much an acknowledgement of Bob Hurwitz the musician as the music lover, the A&R man, the record business visionary—and, to those on stage, a beloved friend.

In 1984, Hurwitz, then managing the US division of the ECM jazz label, was offered the chance to helm Nonesuch Records. It was an instinctive move by Elektra Records chairman Bob Krasnow, whose company marketed and distributed Nonesuch and who had tremendous confidence in the talents of the young executive. The label, founded in 1964 by Jac Holzman, was a groundbreaking venture—an independent presence in a major-label world that boasted an unparalleled catalogue of classical, world, and avant-garde music. But it had stagnated after the 1979 departure of creative head Theresa Sterne and needed a fresh perspective. Krasnow’s job offer came with no mandate—he simply handed the 34-year-old Hurwitz the reins and said, “Talk to me in five years.”

Hurwitz came to rely on instinct too—his faith in the music and artists he felt most passionately about. As he told an interviewer during a 2014 London celebration of the label’s 50th anniversary: “Almost all great record companies were built by enthusiasts, whether it was the Atlantic Records of Ahmet Ertegun or the Warner Bros of Mo Ostin… They sought out the artists they loved.” For Hurwitz, that initially meant the downtown New York City composers whose pioneering work was redefining the contemporary classical world. Hurwitz had an appreciation of the modern establishment, represented by artists like Elliott Carter: “I had an interest in the uptown school but I had a passion for the downtown school. So the first thing I did was jump off that cliff.”

John Adams and Steve Reich with Bob Hurwitz. Photo courtesy Nonesuch Records.
Hurwitz made quite a dramatic leap. In 1985, Nonesuch released albums by Steve Reich (The Desert Music), John Adams (Harmonielehre), and Philip Glass (Mishima). Kronos Quartet, John Zorn, Caetano Veloso, and World Saxophone Quartet all made their label debuts the following year. Hurwitz’s signing of Brazilian singer/songwriter Caetano Veloso indicated the no-boundaries approach he favored for decades to come, bringing in artists whose sensibility fit the label regardless of genre.

Many of Hurwitz’s artistic hunches have yielded commercial as well as critical success, including the American debut of Gipsy Kings and the otherworldly sound of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgare. The 1992 release of the London Sinfonietta’s recording of Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw, turned into a surprise million seller. The Buena Vista Social Club, recorded in Havana with veteran Cuban musicians by Nonesuch artist Ry Cooder, became the biggest selling album in the label’s history. Hurwitz built up the label’s jazz roster, which over the years has featured guitarist Bill Frisell, pianist Brad Mehldau, saxophonist Joshua Redman, and guitarist Pat Metheny; curated a catalogue of Broadway cast recordings, including Adam Guettel’s Tony Award-winning A Light in the Piazza and 11 recordings of Stephen Sondheim’s work, five solo albums from six-time Tony-award winner Audra McDonald, and soundtracks from films by such noted directors as Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coen Brothers. It gave artists like Randy Newman and k.d. lang a platform to release some of their most acclaimed and mature work.

One of Hurwitz’s signings, mandolinist Chris Thile, told NPR, “I’ve wanted to be on Nonesuch since I was a little kid.” The 35-year-old Thile was a mere toddler when Hurwitz came to the label, but he arguably personifies the Nonesuch aesthetic of a “label without labels,” performing bluegrass-influenced music with Punch Brothers, J.S. Bach with Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer, and jazz with Brad Mehldau. He’s among a new generation of artists representing Nonesuch Records, among them Sam Amidon, Timo Andres, Oliva Chaney, Rhiannon Giddens, and Lake Street Dive. Today the company, run by a small, dedicated longtime staff, represents a welcomingly diverse community of artists, brought together by Bob. Many have spent all or much of their careers at Nonesuch, which boasts a multigenerational fan base and listeners and record buyers equally committed to Nonesuch Records for life.

Michael Hill is a writer who also supervises the music for HBO’s
Divorce and Showtime’s
The Affair.

A Nonesuch Celebration comes to the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House this Saturday, April 1.

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