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Grammys Ax Best Classical Album Category

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The competition among classical musicians to stand out at the Grammy awards just got a little stiffer, as the Recording Academy announced Wednesday it has trimmed the awards categories down from 109 to 78.

Classical music saw four categories whittled away. Most notably, perhaps, is the news that a Grammy will no longer be awarded for best classical album. Nearly all other genres, from regional Mexican or Tejano music to contemporary Christian, have retained their best album category.

“In looking at past winners over many years in classical, nearly all of them also won in one of the other categories,” Bill Freimuth, Recording Academy Vice President of Awards, told WQXR. “And it just seemed like-- why does there need to be an additional opportunity for someone to win two Grammys when they are already winning for the exact same album?”

The 2010 award for best classical album when to a recording of Verdi's Requiem by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chicago Symphony Chorus, conducted by Ricardo Muti. The recording also took the award for best choral performance.

Freimuth pointed out that classical albums will this year, for the first time ever, be eligible to win album of the year. “People say maybe the classical album won’t stand a chance against Lady Gaga and Eminem,” Freimuth said. “There is a possibility of a really stunning classical album rising to that level. It’s hard, but it should be hard to win a Grammy for album of the year. That’s the top award in many people’s eyes.”

Before the changes, Grammys for classical music were given in 11 distinct categories, alongside two production categories (Producer of the Year, Classical and Best Engineered Album, Classical). Now classical will weigh in with seven distinct categories alongside the two production awards. A new category called best classical instrumental solo replaces two previous categories that covered solo instrumental performances with and without orchestra, for one example.

Grammy awards are nominated by secret ballots by voting members of the Recording Academy, which maintains twelve chapters in cities across the country, according to Freimuth. Members are “a combination of artists, engineers and producers,” Freimuth said. Entries for Grammy consideration first go out to the general voting membership, from which the top twenty are determined.

The nomination review committee then assesses the selected music in each category. “They will listen to some entire tracks or songs, then needle drop a little through the rest of it until everybody is satisfied they have a really good sense of the album,” Freimuth said. This committee then votes by secret ballot. The top five choices from this process become the nominees.

Deloitte, an accounting and consulting firm, oversees the process. Members serve for five years, with chairpeople having the opportunity to serve for up to eight years. “Age varies,” Freimuth said. “Having term limits help us keep it younger.”

“We’re trying to be more transparent now that we were, say, ten years ago,” Freimuth added. “People picture guys in a room smoking cigars picking out the Grammy winners. That’s very far from the truth.”

Since the first Grammys were given in 1959, the number of recognized musical fields had grown from 28 to 109 with the most recent 53rd ceremony.

Streamlining the award categories is not the only change in the Grammys' approach to classical music. In 2010, the Recording Academy canceled its annual Salute to Classical Music, a long-standing event honoring outstanding classical musicians.

“As most companies in this economy, we’ve had to do a lot of belt tightening,” Freimuth said. “But that’s something we hope to bring back.”