A Music Maker Happy to be a Conduit

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Adam Abeshouse has a job description that charts many paths: therapist and coach for hyper-sensitive artists; "microphone junkie" who knows his gear; and facilitator who understands how music should sound.

A Grammy Award-winning classical record producer and engineer, Abeshouse has worked with labels including Sony, BMG, Bridge, Naxos and EMI. Some of the most prominent classical artists today have been recorded by him – Garrick Ohlsson, Leon Fleischer, the Guarneri String Quartet, and Simone Dinnerstein, to name a few. He's worked with orchestras including the London and Boston Symphony Orchestras and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic.

Abeshouse has a Master of Music degree from the Manhattan School of Music and is an accomplished violinist who has performed with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, American Ballet Theater and City Ballet. He even appeared as a violinist in the feature films Fame and The Royal Tenenbaums. His broad musical background informs his producing, engineering and mastering techniques in an unusually well-rounded way.

I recently had the chance to ask Adam a few questions. Here’s what he had to say:

MW: Adam, what got you interested in the recording business in the first place? 

AA: From the time I was in high school, I’ve loved recording. The idea that you could have a great performance waiting for you by any number of incredible artists was such a thrill. It was something that I aspired to be a part of. I also love the gear...I am a microphone junkie, trying to capture the ideal picture of the sound and the blend with the hall. To create that is incredibly exciting. 

MW: What’s the key to balancing your work as a performer and your recording work? 

AA: Well, I must say that my recording schedule is much heavier than my performing schedule and has been for many years. I love playing in the Orchestra of St. Luke’s since I began in 1991. But the demands of my producing and engineering jobs take precedence.

MW: What are the most important things that you bring to your recording and production work as a result of your background as a trained violinist? 

AA: It teaches me patience, humility and understanding. I know how hard it is to do what the artist is trying to do when he or she records. I’ve been on both sides of the glass. So, I treat all the artists with the respect and time that I would want if I were playing the piece myself.

MW: Does being a musician yourself ever become a problem in your recording work? 

AA: I don’t think so. It has only been a great asset.

MW: How do you go about convincing an artist – including some with healthy egos – to hear things your way? How would you convince them that something needs a second take, for instance? 

AA: First of all, I would never try to convince someone to hear something my way. I will make suggestions - and sometimes very strongly suggest - but at the end of the day their name is on the front cover of the record and mine is in small credits stuffed inside. My job is to facilitate and help that artist make the best recording that they are capable of making. I do this by creating an atmosphere of trust at the session - a great safety net to enable them to take risks during the recording process knowing that we can work it out when we edit. I am able to keep my focus on the big picture - the overall architecture of the piece - as well as the minutia of the details. It usually doesn’t take much coaxing to get multiple takes. The hard part is often getting them to move on.

MW: Tell us about your work on pianist Simone Dinnerstein’s new album Something Almost Being Said.

AA: I was immediately struck by how focused Simone was on this project. She had a very clear vision about what she wanted to achieve and didn’t make any compromises throughout the whole process. Her playing is so honest and open it really does reflect her as a person. She is completely like that in life and music.

MW: Pianist Jeremy Denk wrote an article for this week’s New Yorker magazine that is getting a lot of buzz. He references a recording of Ives’s Concord Sonata that you worked on. What stood out for you about that recording? 

AA: Jeremy took an incredibly complicated piece, and because he is so intelligent and such a great artist, he makes it understandable and accessible to anyone. I remember listening to him whistling “the tunes” of the Concord Sonata during a lunch break. I was thinking how - for Jeremy - this piece is as much a part of him as any simple popular tune is to my kids.

MW: Do you have an all-time favorite project?   

AA: I have so many favorites, certainly working with Garrick Ohlsson on his cycle of complete Chopin works for piano and the complete Beethoven piano sonatas, working with artists like Jeremy Denk and Simone Dinnerstein, Leon Fleisher, The Kalichstein, Laredo, Robinson Trio among many others. Working with David Starobin on the complete George Crumb feels like a great achievement. My associate Silas Brown and I have recorded two ballets with the San Francisco Ballet for DVD release and PBS -- “The Nutcracker” and “The Little Mermaid” -- and both of those were tremendously exciting. I’ve been very lucky.

MW: With CD sales declining and more people downloading music, do you think CDs will soon be a thing of the past? 

AA: I hope not. I still love being able to give something tangible to people.

MW: With the ongoing financial challenges in the music business – and many artists taking a ‘DIY’ approach to their recording careers – how does that impact the work you do? 

AA: I started a small foundation 10 years ago called The Classical Recording Foundation. Its mission is to help fill the gap of financing to get artistically worthy projects done. To date, we have helped over 40 recordings get made, and won many awards. I am very proud of our accomplishments.

MW: What are you working on now that we can look forward to hearing? 

AA: I am involved in a group that is building a new live performance/recording space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It will be announced soon, and is one of the most exciting projects that I have ever been associated with.

MW: Thanks, Adam. Any final thoughts?

AA: In closing, one thing that I really want people to think about is how I feel about live verses recorded performance. I believe these are two very different art forms, both equally valid and important. I go to a live performance for the spontaneity - to be part of the group experiencing something together as a community. I listen to a recording to hear that artist’s or composer’s highest conception of that work. A writer wouldn’t publish his/her first draft of a work. They need time to reflect, analyze, and tweak it.

The recording process gives the artist a great opportunity for this. They can come into my recording booth, truly hear themselves without being encumbered or distracted by the mechanics of playing their instrument and critique themselves honestly. I love hearing a piece grow from take one to take whatever. Even if it is a great artist who has played the piece live 100 times, this growth almost always happens. If the right atmosphere is created for the recording - a nurturing one - the results will be rewarding.