In 1989, James Ginsburg founded Cedille Records as label dedicated to making distinctive classical recordings featuring superb Chicago-area musicians performing important music overlooked by the major record companies. In 1994, Cedille Records became a not-for-profit, under the umbrella of an operating foundation now named Cedille Chicago, NFP, in order to give Cedille Records the capacity to produce more noteworthy recordings and pursue larger and more ambitious projects. Now celebrating its 25th year, Cedille Chicago works with over 160 exceptional musicians and has six Grammy Awards and seventeen Grammy nominations to its credit.

It was Stay Thirsty Magazine’s privilege to visit with James Ginsburg at his Chicago studio for this Conversation.

STAY THIRSTY: You founded Cedille Records with a very specific mission “to bring Chicago’s finest classical musicians to a worldwide audience by recording, distributing, and promoting their work.” Although your family roots were in New York, what influenced you to stake out Chicago as the place to build your artistic and family life? 

JAMES GINSBURG: I originally came to this city in 1983 to study at the University of Chicago. One thing I noticed during my time there was that, other than the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, there were no recordings of the wonderful local classical musicians and ensembles I was hearing in concerts and live broadcasts from WFMT. After two years back in New York, post-graduation, during which I did some work in the music industry and also started writing reviews for the American Record Guide, I decided to come back to Chicago for law school (which I eventually dropped out of) and also decided to try my hand at producing recordings, founding Cedille to record the Chicago musicians who were being completely ignored by other record labels. I also found Chicago a great place to live and raise a family.

STAY THIRSTY: In 1989, when you formed Cedille Records, it was as a sole proprietorship, but you changed it to a “not-for-profit” organization in 1994 with the founding of The Chicago Classical Recording Foundation. What motivated you to change from the “for profit” world to the “not-for-profit” one?

JAMES GINSBURG: The aim of the label was never as a money-making venture. I formed it initially as a sole proprietorship because that was the quickest and easiest way to get it off the ground. With few exceptions (e.g., the “Three Tenors”) the classical recording business has never been a profit center, and Cedille’s locally focused mission, which also incorporates bringing out new and rare repertoire, made it even less inherently profitable. What we did have going for us was a well-defined artistic mission that filled a need. This made converting the label to not-for-profit status, once we had developed a reputation for the quality of our work, a natural and necessary evolution.

STAY THIRSTY: In its history, Cedille has jumpstarted and supported the careers of many Chicago classical performers and composers. Some have gone on to win Grammy Awards. What is it that Cedille can do as a record label that most, if not all, of the other major classical labels cannot? How has being a nonprofit recording label helped further your mission?

JAMES GINSBURG: It’s our focus on the artists that really sets Cedille apart. 60 years ago, the “major” labels were focused on building careers, but that model has long since become obsolete. Today, they are only interested in artists who have already made a big splash rather than helping artists get there. Many smaller labels will take lesser-known artists but will do little or nothing to support their work. Many even make the artists pay them to put out their music.

Cedille’s mission is to build the careers and reputations of the Chicago artists we record. So we take care of production costs, pay the artists, and do everything we can to use the recordings to promote the artists’ work and larger goals. We also work as closely with the artists as we can to ensure that the look and sound of their recordings match their visions. At a recent Cedille event, Chicago composer Stacy Garrop declared:

Cedille Records is a label that not only seeks out new composers and performers, but also nurtures the artists in a way that many other record labels stopped doing years ago. [Cedille allows] us to explore various projects; they foster our musical and professional development so that we can realize our fullest potential. From the first stages to the final product, every project I undertake with Cedille is done with the highest production level possible, and I'm always thrilled with the results.

We simply could not operate this way, assuming all these costs, investing in the quality of our productions, publicity, and marketing, and covering all parts of the classical repertory from solo piano to opera, without financial support from those who value our work and our mission.

Cedille Records

STAY THIRSTY: When you decide to record a new artist, what goes through your mind in terms of presentation, image, longevity and loyalty to Cedille?

JAMES GINSBURG: Cedille’s mission incorporates building the careers and reputations of the artists we work with. This is especially true of a new artist who is at the starting point of their career. This is a very collaborative process. So it is vital that the musician or ensemble have an artistic vision we can support and be willing to partner with us in promoting their work. This includes a vision of how they want to present themselves to the critical and listening public. Loyalty to Cedille is entirely up to the artists. We only want musicians recording for Cedille because they want to and we are thrilled when their work for us opens up opportunities to record for other labels (as has happened many times). Happily, they keep coming back to Cedille.

Ensembles that began their recording careers with Cedille include Eighth Blackbird (which has won four Grammy Awards for their Cedille recordings), the Pacifica Quartet (which was named Musical America Ensemble of the Year in 2009), the Lincoln Trio (whose latest Cedille recording was nominated for a Grammy), and the rising young Dover Quartet. Violinists Rachel Barton Pine (20 albums for Cedille) and Jennifer Koh (12 albums for Cedille) didn’t quite start their careers with Cedille but have grown with the label and credit the label for helping them achieve many career milestones. For example, Rachel notes that it was because of a Cedille recording project that she got to play, and keep, her marvelous 1742 Guarneri del Gesù violin. Another project led to the formation of her period-instrument ensemble Trio Settecento, which has gone on to make six recordings for Cedille.

STAY THIRSTY: How do you leverage the fact that Cedille is a not-for-profit corporation when working out the budget for a new CD? Do your donors help to support specific artists or projects and how crucial is it for each record/artist to sell enough records to make a profit?

JAMES GINSBURG: Being not-for-profit allows Cedille to make recording decisions based on artistic merit. Most of our support is for our general operating funds, which allows us freedom in deciding what projects to take on. Over the years, we have gotten better at project-specific fundraising by discovering the specific musical interests of our donors and matching those with projects they may be interested in supporting. More expensive projects sometimes require us to find such funding in advance before we can green-light the recording so as not to blow a hole in our budget. There are also organizations dedicated to specific areas of the repertoire such as new music or American music to which we apply for direct project support. Given the nature of the classical music business and the extra costs we take on to maintain the quality of our productions and service to our artists, it is rare that a recording would actually make a profit on sales alone, and that is not something we look for when deciding which projects to take on. That said, it is important to us that a recording have an audience beyond just a handful of aficionados so that it can reach a wider public and help promote the artist(s)’ career(s).

STAY THIRSTY: At this year’s Soirée Cedille, your mother, Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, presented the Martin D. Ginsburg Award, named after your father, to civil rights lawyer Kathleen Peratis. Why was she chosen to receive this high honor and to have it presented by your mother?

JAMES GINSBURG: We inaugurated the Martin D. Ginsburg Award in 2014 to celebrate my father’s consistent championing of our work and to acknowledge those who have followed in his footsteps with their unswerving support and ardent promotion of our unique musical mission. My mom has attended every Soirée since then to present the award. Over the years, the award has alternated between music lovers far and wide who my father helped cultivate and local Chicago classical music supporters. It was particularly gratifying for mom to present this year’s Award to someone so close to her personally and professionally. Kathleen Peratis worked with mom on the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project starting in 1972 and took over the project a few years later. In her very moving remarks, Peratis talked about how my father inspired her to support our work.

James Ginsburg

STAY THIRSTY: During the course of a year, how many new recordings does Cedille typically release? What is the useful life of a CD released by Cedille and how does your catalog reflect your long-term vision?

JAMES GINSBURG: Over the years, we have steadily increased our output in response to the growing demand for our service from Chicago artists. We now release nine new recordings annually (up from six only a few years ago). In one sense, the “life” of one of our CDs is perpetual, since Cedille never deletes recordings from our catalog (in contrast to the practice of most labels). In practicality, the great majority of a new album’s physical sales are in the first few months and few albums sell more than a handful of physical units per year after the first two years. The rise of streaming has begun to make up for this, however, and is providing a “long tail” to album sales that can last for many years as people discover and rediscover the music through different platforms, playlists, etc. This is where our emphasis on using social media to keep our artists and albums in front of the public becomes so important.

STAY THIRSTY: Cedille’s wide variety of artists from Chamber Ensembles to Composers, from Instrumental Soloists to Keyboard Soloists, from Orchestras to Vocal Soloists and from Vocal Ensembles to Conductors reflects a commitment to the breadth and depth of classical music. Of all that Cedille has recorded over the years, what areas are your personal favorites and what areas have you found the public most responsive to?

JAMES GINSBURG: Our best-selling artist is violinist Rachel Barton Pine. Two of her albums have sold particularly well: Her 2003 coupling of the Brahms Violin Concerto with the Concerto “In the Hungarian Style” by Joseph Joachim, the violinist for whom Brahms wrote his concerto, was our top seller for a very long time. It was also our first Grammy nominee – in the Best Engineered Album, Classical category – and one of two recordings of ours featuring the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Carlos Kalmar conducting). The Joachim concerto is rarely played or recorded due to its unusual length and technical difficulty for soloist and orchestra alike, but it’s a marvelous work (one critic called it the “Holy Grail of romantic violin concertos”). That album was eventually eclipsed in sales by Pine’s very personal Violin Lullabies collection, inspired by the birth of her daughter Sylvia in 2011.

Other recordings that have generated the strongest consumer response include our first opera recording, Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium, featuring the Chicago Opera Theater with mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle and soprano Patrice Michaels in the lead roles, released in 1997, and more recently, our latest Grammy winner, the Cedille label debut of Chicago’s Third Coast Percussion in an all-Steve Reich program, which has been our most-streamed album. Our two opera recordings, both with Chicago Opera Theater – the other was the world-premiere recording of Chicago composer Robert Kurka’s 1953 opera The Good Soldier Schweik, released in 2002 – are among the albums that I most enjoyed producing. I got to be particularly creative with The Medium, adding lots of great sound effects – some pre-recorded, others newly created – to one of the greatest ghost stories in all of opera.

As for personal favorites, it’s very hard to choose. From a repertoire perspective, I am particularly proud of our many recordings championing composers of color, including Rachel Barton Pine’s Violin Concertos by Black Composers of the 18th and 19th Centuries and just-released Blues Dialogues: Music by Black Composers, conductor Paul Freeman and the Chicago Sinfonietta’s three-volume African Heritage Symphonic Series, and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson: A Celebration. I’m thrilled that we got to release the world-premiere recording of two of the first four Pulitzer Prize winners in music (William Schuman’s A Free Song (1943 prize) and Chicago composer Leo Sowerby’s The Canticle of the Sun (1946)) on The Pulitzer Project with the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Carlos Kalmar. I was also delighted to release the Pacifica Quartet’s acclaimed Shostakovich Quartet cycle combined with quartets by other Soviet composers under the title The Soviet Experience (Shostakovich is my favorite composer). For pure listening enjoyment, my favorite recording is soprano Patrice Michaels collection of French-language songs with orchestra or chamber ensemble La vie est une parade. I also particularly enjoy chamber choir Chicago a cappella’s 2005 Cedille debut album, Shall I Compare Thee? — Choral Songs on Shakespeare Texts.

STAY THIRSTY: What projects are currently in the pipeline for release in the coming year and what projects are on your bucket list to record?

JAMES GINSBURG: Our 2019 lineup begins with the full-album recording debut of young Chicago violist Matthew Lipman (recent Avery Fisher Career Grant winner) titled Ascent; the disc includes a Shostakovich world premiere: the recently rediscovered Impromptu for Viola and Piano, Op. 33 (which we just released as a digital single ahead of its appearance on the full album in February). In March (Women’s History Month) we release an album of world premieres (including four commissions) called Project W  Orchestral Works by Women Composers with the Chicago Sinfonietta and conductor Mei-Ann Chen. Our spring releases include an album of 20th century oboe sonatas with former Chicago Symphony Orchestra principal Alex Klein; Duo Concertos with Chicago brothers Demarre and Anthony McGill, flute and clarinet, and the Chicago Youth Symphony Philharmonic Orchestra, Alan Tinkham conducting (including world premieres of two commissioned works); and Modern Harpsichord Concertos with Jory Vinikour and the Chicago Philharmonic, Scott Speck conducting. The second half of the year will feature the debut album by Chicago string trio Black Oak Ensemble titled Silenced Voices, a program of music by four central European victims and one survivor of the Holocaust (most works composed in the Theresienstadt concentration camp before the composers were sent to Auschwitz); violinist Jennifer Koh’s program of newly commissioned duos performed with their composers titled Limitless; Guitar Quintets with the Pacifica Quartet and internationally acclaimed guitarist Sharon Isbin; and four-time Grammy winners Eighth Blackbird’s performance of celebrated American composer David Lang’s new concert-length piece composition as explanation, based on a 1926 lecture by Gertrude Stein.

Because our repertoire ideas come from the artists we serve, I don’t really have a “bucket list” of projects I want to record. I will say, however, that if recent Cedille artist the Dover Quartet ever decides to record their own Shostakovich cycle, I would be interested in producing that, since I did not get to produce the Pacifica Quartet’s cycle myself.

(James Ginsburg photo credit: Elliot Mandel)



All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.