January 22, 2019

Record label owner has an ear for the unusual

Growing up in a family of lawyers, James Ginsburg’s path might have seemed inevitable. But his parents — mother, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, and his late father, Martin Ginsburg, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center — both loved music, and that made all the difference.

James Ginsburg, reached by phone from his office in Chicago, recalled his mother once saying, “James was a lively child, but put on some music and his ears perked up.”

As founder, president and chief producer of Cedille (pronounced say-DEE) Records, a Chicago-based nonprofit classical label, Ginsburg is ever on the alert for innovative artists and fresh repertoire. Since 1989, the Cedille label has attracted world-class artists and ensembles, including eighth blackbird, the Pacifica Quartet, violinists Jennifer Koh and Rachel Barton Pine, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — the list goes on. 

The label, which has won multiple Grammy Awards over the years, including this week’s win by eighth blackbird for the album “Filament” in the best chamber music/small ensemble performance category, also garnered nominations in several other categories this year, including “best classical compendium” for the New Budapest Orpheum Society’s two-disc survey, “As Dreams Fall Apart — The Golden Age of Jewish Stage and Film Music 1925-1955,” which Ginsburg produced. 

On Feb. 25, the New Budapest Orpheum Society, ensemble-in-residence at the University of Chicago, performs a program of “Jewish Cabaret Between Berlin and Hollywood,” including tracks from “As Dreams Fall Apart,” at UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall at 8 p.m. Earlier that day, the ensemble’s founder and artistic director, Philip Bohlman, joins a symposium on “The Cabaretesque in Jewish Music” at the UCLA Faculty Center. 

“As Dreams Fall Apart” (earlier recordings by the ensemble on the Cedille label also explore different sides of Jewish music) mixes familiar composers, such as Erich Wolfgang Korngold, with less familiar names such as Friedrich Holländer and Hermann Leopoldi, a witty Austrian composer and cabaret star who survived Buchenwald. 

“Being Jewish, I have a connection to this repertoire,” Ginsburg, 50, said, pointing out that the CD’s booklet cover suggests one of the recording’s themes by showing a drawing of Leopoldi at a crumbling piano with a sign looming above him reading, “New York-Wien-Buchenwald.”

Ginsburg, who met Bohlman and the New Budapest Orpheum Society musicians in 2001, said they combine the latest scholarship with a remarkable sense of style appropriate to each composer and era. Along with Bohlman and music director-arranger-pianist Ilya Levinson, the eight-member ensemble also includes a mezzo-soprano, baritone, percussionist, violinist, bassist and accordionist.

“The uniqueness of their repertoire showed a different side of what we call classical music,” Ginsburg said. “It wasn’t klezmer. In ‘As Dreams Fall Apart,’ they demonstrate where certain traditions come from. They played a song by Leopoldi, and I thought, ‘So Kurt Weill wasn’t the only one writing like that.’ They also unearthed songs by Holländer and [Hanns] Eisler.”

For Bohlman, the ensemble’s admittedly ambitious double-CD is a summary look at the tensions of an era through popular and art song. The group, which performs in sacred and secular venues, took the “As Dreams …” program to Germany, including for a performance at the Jewish Museum in Berlin. In addition to English, the ensemble performs in Yiddish, German, Polish and Hebrew. 

“Jim is one of the most imaginative music producers in the world,” Bohlman said. “He knows what works and what doesn’t, and he knows languages and vocal styles. Part of the trick with a recording like this is getting the language to work. These were songs meant to be understood.

“So many songs from that era talk about dreams and dreaming,” Bohlman said. “They became an alternative reality. It was an incredible period of discovery where film music and song worked together addressing social issues — an era when film producers began to recognize that music could tell socially powerful stories, and where composers discovered each other. That tradition travels up to ‘West Side Story’ ”

Bohlman, who was raised in rural Wisconsin, is not Jewish. But, he said, “professors who had fled the Shoah” encouraged him to pursue his studies in Israel in the late 1970s. Since then, Bohlman’s focus has been Jewish music. “I’ve held a number of academic positions in Jewish studies,” he said. “Ethnomusicology led me out into the world, where I could confront the challenges of understanding the big questions that music and history raise.”

Ginsburg grew up on New York City’s Upper East Side, where music was part of the fabric of his early life. He began collecting records at age 7, and he recalled his parents taking him to the opera in the 1970s. 

“After hearing Michael Tilson Thomas conduct a New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concert with Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird,’ I saw that the New York City Ballet was dancing it and got my parents to take me,” he said. After the performance, Ginsburg, who was apparently already a discerning listener at age 8, recalls telling his surprised father, “They didn’t play it nearly as well as the New York Philharmonic.”
Later, Ginsburg dipped in and out of law school at the University of Chicago, even taking a job for a year as a paralegal. But work as a radio programmer and music critic eventually led him to found Cedille Records. “I still follow legal issues through my mom,” he said. 

Meanwhile, he remains modest about his acknowledged gift for finding first-rate artists, and for preferring riskier, more innovative repertoire over safer works by, say, Beethoven or Mozart. 

“The artists come to you,” Ginsburg said. “I don’t suffer from ‘masterpiece syndrome.’ There are so many undiscovered treasures out there. I love to hear new stuff.”