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Classical label makes a home in Music City

By Marcel Smith

AUGUST 31, 1998:  Naxos Music, a classical label founded in Hong Kong a decade ago, has just relocated its American headquarters from New Jersey into a space near CoolSprings Galleria. On June 25, the company celebrated its arrival with a grand-opening gala at the Parthenon, well attended by people from the local arts community.

Though still relatively unknown in the U.S., Naxos is synonymous in Europe and the Far East with first-quality classical music, recorded with state-of-the-art digital accuracy and sold at half or less than half the price of competing labels. During its decade of existence, the label's releases have earned very high marks from prestigious musical publications, among them Billboard, Grammophone, Fanfare, Classical CD Review, and the Penguin Guide to Compact Discs and Cassettes. Naxos has a long list of discs awarded five stars by Classical CD Review, and an even longer list of recordings recommended by the Penguin Guide.

Klaus Heymann, the label's charismatic founder, arrived in Nashville via a long and winding road. Born and raised in Frankfurt, Germany, he abandoned his university studies after three years to work for the Overseas Weekly, an American newspaper for forces stationed in Europe. After two years on the job in Germany, he was sent in 1967 to Hong Kong to start publishing for American forces serving in Vietnam. He arrived, he says, with "one suitcase and a typewriter," but he quickly discovered that service personnel in Asia wanted a lot of things they couldn't get, so he started a direct-mail business, offering cameras, watches, and audio equipment.

After the Vietnam War ended, Heymann stayed on in Hong Kong as the distributor for Bose, Revox, and, later, Studer recording equipment. To generate sales, he promoted classical concerts in Hong Kong's city hall. Then, as an additional sideline, he started distributing a few classical labels. When he began to distribute several pop labels as well, his profit margin leaped. Soon he was running one of the two leading record distributors in Southeast Asia. His success led to a position on the board of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, which in turn led to his meeting Takako Nishizaki, the Japanese violinist who would become his wife.

Nishizaki left home and family in Japan to live in Hong Kong. To give his wife something to do, Heymann says, he started his first record label, Hong Kong Music. For that label, his wife recorded a classical Chinese composition, The Butterfly Lover's Violin Concerto. On the strength of this one recording, Takako Nishizaki remains the hottest-selling artist in Hong Kong --outselling Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Stevie Wonder, and Lionel Ritchie.

Consequently, the Hong Kong Philharmonic signed an exclusive recording contract with Heymann. This led to Heymann's second recording venture, Marco Polo, which proved to be an "expensive hobby." But this hobby led indirectly to the idea that became Naxos music. After several Marco Polo releases, Heymann realized that there was a great hunger in the Pacific Rim for Western classical music. The only problem was, Western-label CDs were too pricey. Heymann realized that if he could turn out high-quality product at a low cost, he might be able to capture the market and turn a nice profit.

A lucky coincidence made his idea practicable: Recent recording technology permitted one or two people to go anywhere in the world with portable equipment and produce state-of-the-art recorded sound. Meanwhile, the collapse of the former Soviet Union provided a pool of excellent, though unknown, musicians who were very happy to work for flat fees, without royalties.

But not even Heymann had any idea the label would take off the way it has. He saw his market as the Far East, but queries poured in from European and American distributors who had gotten wind of his product. The sudden demand led him to a cardinal discovery: In classical music, it's the music that matters --not who makes the music. The voices of Bryn Terfel and of Cecilia Bartoli, wonderful though they be, are less important, in the end, than the music of Schubert or Mozart that they're performing.

The cult of personality is not absent from classical music --witness "the three tenors." But it carries far less force than in other categories. Klaus Heymann's wife, Takako Nishizaki, a superb violinist, does not have the reputation of Isaac Stern or Itzhak Perlman. But her recording of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, with a little-known ensemble and a less-known conductor, has sold 700,000 copies worldwide.

Naxos has been a fecund producer. As of mid-1997, the Naxos catalogue contained some 1,500 different discs covering more than 7,000 different compositions. At that time, more than 400 new releases had already come out, and another 150 were scheduled for production.

Such numbers can be misleading, since the label's output is divided into several categories --including one that has more resemblance to Mantovani than to Messaien. Even so, the greatest number belong to the classical core of the Naxos archive, which reaches from the Middle Ages to the avant garde, with emphasis on the standard European repertory. In the collection so far, even though some frustrating lacunae remain, Naxos has already produced, or will soon produce, complete cycles of much of the repertory of some major composers, and the most-demanded repertory of others --Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Dvorák, Elgar, Haydn, Mahler, Mozart, Neilsen, Schumann, Sibelius, and Stravinsky, to name only a few.

Heymann clearly has figured out how to run the production end of his business. And in Europe and the Far East, he is selling very well. Naxos has captured nearly half the classical music market all over the Pacific Rim, and from 50 to 70 percent of that market in Scandinavia. But in the U.S. --the world's largest record-buying market by far --Naxos claims only about 5 percent of the classical market.

Determined to improve business in the States, Heymann turned recently to his very successful Scandinavian operative, Hakan Lagerqvist, for advice. Lagerqvist recommended a Canadian friend and colleague, Jim Sturgeon, for the head job at Naxos of America. And it was Sturgeon, whose previous experience includes working for Christian label Warner Alliance, who convinced Heymann to move his American offices from New Jersey to Nashville.

Heymann spent most of six weeks here overseeing the relocation. He left June 30 to go back to the Far East --though he has said he will return to Nashville as often as necessary until the Naxos market share in America has become satisfactory. Already, Naxos is growing very rapidly in Nashville. Sturgeon says he is on target to do more than $8 million in sales this year, with weekly sales averaging over $100,000. He has at present 17 people on the payroll and is preparing to fill another dozen positions. He feels confident that Naxos can achieve a dominant share of the market in the States, as the label has already done in Scandinavia and the Pacific Rim.

Nevertheless, for members of the local classical-music community, the question remains: What impact will this bustling label have on the arts in Nashville? The truth of the matter is, it could be very little --or it could be quite significant. This much we do know: Naxos will probably not do production here --at least not right away. And Naxos will not likely use local musicians on a regular basis, though Heymann says that he has used local talent and will do so again --"if it is of the international quality we need." Indeed, Naxos already has in its catalogue a CD featuring organist Robbie Delcamp from the University of the South at Sewanee, recorded at West End United Methodist Church here in Nashville. And Kenneth Schermerhorn, who once served as music director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, has recorded a Sibelius CD for Naxos. This disc has done fairly well, selling 200,000 copies worldwide.

During his visit, Heymann emphasized that Naxos always tries to be a "good citizen" in any community with which it is associated. For his part, Jim Sturgeon says that Naxos believes in "giving back" to the community "in a variety of creative ways." But what these generalities may translate into remains to be seen. In the end, the biggest benefit that Naxos brings to Nashville might be its reputation as one of the foremost classical recording labels in the world. And quite probably, Naxos will indeed look for ways to make the community glad the label is amongst us. Jim Sturgeon is no doubt hearing suggestions already.

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