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Classical Sounds Invade Country Music Capital

  • Mike Osborne

The Nashville Symphony Orchestra prepares to record Richard Danielpour's "Darkness in the Ancient Valley" at Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Nashville, Tennessee. (Courtesy Nashville Symphony)

The Nashville Symphony Orchestra prepares to record Richard Danielpour's "Darkness in the Ancient Valley" at Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Nashville, Tennessee. (Courtesy Nashville Symphony)

Nashville, Tennessee, home to the famous Grand Ole Opry, is perhaps best known as America's country music capital.

But you're just as likely to hear the sounds of a violin as a fiddle because the world’s largest classical music label has its North American headquarters right on Nashville’s doorstep.

Naxos Records is located in Franklin, Tennessee, just south of Nashville. The label has more than 7,000 recordings in its catalog, and stores more than four million CDs in the warehouse.

Shrink-wrapped CDs and music DVDs are stacked on row after row of shelves 10 meters high and 100 meters long.

Naxos ships 1,000 customer orders from its Tennessee warehouse every day. It’s quite an accomplishment for a 25-year-old company that began life as a budget label with a reputation for recording minor works by obscure orchestras.
Naxos Records is located in Franklin, Tennessee, stores more than four million CDs in its North American warehouse alone. (Courtesy Naxos Records)

Naxos Records is located in Franklin, Tennessee, stores more than four million CDs in its North American warehouse alone. (Courtesy Naxos Records)


“To this day, they still record hungry young orchestras that don’t have much in the way of a recording profile,” says Jim Svejda, author of “The Insider’s Guide to Classical Music,” and host of a nationally syndicated classical music radio program. “The Fort Smith Symphony in Arkansas is actually making recordings. The Grand Rapids Symphony in Michigan is recording symphonies by Adolphus Hailstork which are not easy to play, and they’re making absolutely superb recordings.”

According to Svejda, right from the beginning, Naxos distinguished itself by having those orchestras record music beyond the standard repertoire.

“Twenty years ago it was the same old dinosaur record companies that every once in a while, every four or five years, would launch a new Beethoven Symphony cycle with, you know, with he newest hot, young conductor with predictable results," he says. "People just kind of lost interest.”

With more than 115 million recordings sold to date, people are clearly paying attention now. And no one is more surprised than Klaus Heymann, the company’s 76-year-old founder.

He launched Naxos, in part, to distribute recordings made by his wife, world-class Japanese violinist Takako Nishizaki.

Heymann is a German-born entrepreneur who doesn’t play an instrument and can’t read music. He’s convinced those were the perfect qualifications for the job.

“I had run other very successful businesses before I started the record companies. So I looked at that with the cold eye of the businessman and I said, ‘This is all crazy how they run this business. Why don’t we do it differently?’”

Heymann’s approach was so different, some industry observers initially labeled his tactics predatory. Anne Midgette, a music critic with The Washington Post, says he was accused of taking advantage of artists who were desperate to record.

“They didn’t pay the kinds of expenses or royalties or deals that were then customary in the business," says Midgette. "In fact, Naxos was about 10 years ahead of its time in that.”

Midgette says it’s clear now that Heymann’s tactics were evolutionary, not exploitive, and she considers his ability to continue to adapt and innovate the key to his success.

One of those innovations has forever endeared Heymann to American audiophiles. In 1998, he launched the Naxos American Classics series, recording the works of more than 200 American composers not generally well known in the rest of the world.

Heymann launched the series to help Naxos break into the notoriously hard to crack American music market. The series has grown to include more than 400 titles.

“It hasn’t made any money," Heymann says. "In fact, it’s lost a lot of money, but it was wonderful for our prestige. We’ve won so many Grammys with our American Classics.”

The Nashville Symphony has won seven of those Grammys for Naxos. Symphony president Alan Valentine was happy to demonstrate another of Klaus Heymann’s innovations. The Naxos Music Library is an online subscription tool that allows users to play, or stream, selections from the company’s entire catalog.

Heymann embraced online streaming five years before Apple launched iTunes. His staff thought he was crazy, but it was a move he now considers his proudest achievement.

“It’s a veritable reference library for classical music,” Heymann says.

And he's determined to keep adding to it.

“You cannot imagine how much more music is out there. So we’ll not run out of things to record.”

And with Heymann at the helm, it seems likely that Naxos, like the namesake Greek Island long known as a birthplace of classical art, will continue to evolve and inspire. The label recently released an application for Apple’s iPad that introduces children to classical music.

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