Listel’s: Legendary producer Steven Epstein
26 November 2009 | Franz Felicius
One of the most influential pairs of ears in the recording industry belongs to Steven Epstein. The veteran producer’s name isn’t as famous as those of the iconic artists on his resumé — among them Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell, Wynton Marsalis, Murray Perahia and Sarah Vaughan — but he has significantly shaped the way we hear a wide spectrum of classical music, jazz and Broadway on disc. Epstein’s work has garnered multiple Grammys (including seven alone for Classical Producer of the Year), as well as Edison and Grand Prix du Disque awards.
The instinct for sustained, long-range focus that serves Epstein so well as a record producer manifested itself early, when he was growing up in Queens Village, New York in the ’50s and ’60s. He vividly recalls how, as a toddler, hearing a Columbia LP of Robert Casadesus playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 triggered his lifelong love of classical music. Epstein later turned his attention to sound equipment, intrigued by the variant results he experienced from hi-fi equipment. By the time he started high school, Epstein knew he wanted to pursue a career in record production.
“My ears had been opened to what was considered state-of-the-art sound when I started exploring records like The Fabulous Philadelphia Sound on my neighbor’s new Magnavox stereo,” says Epstein. “And I read the liner notes by Tom Frost about his responsibilities as a producer. So I wrote to ask him what qualifications were needed to enter the field. In those days there were no programs in sound technology, so he suggested that I major in music to get overall experience.”
Epstein stuck to his plan, studying violin and earning a degree in music education from Hofstra. He also acquired experience directing classical programming for the campus radio station. After graduating in 1973, Epstein once again wrote to Frost, who was then co-directing Columbia Masterworks (which later became CBS Masterworks). Impressed by his persistence, Frost brought him on board as a music editor. Epstein stayed with Columbia (which later became Sony) for over three decades, soon reaching the level of senior executive producer.
“On my very first day of work, I was asked to edit an album of Rudolf Serkin playing Beethoven sonatas,” Epstein recalls. “It really came down to learning by doing. But the timing was perfect.”
Part of Epstein’s secret through a career of more than three hundred commercial recordings has been to hold on to the intensity of his early passion. Despite the continual awards and honors, he demonstrates a distinctly self-effacing attitude about his role. “I used to be reluctant to offer interpretive points unless it had to do with drawing attention to wrong notes. As I’ve gained experience, I find, more and more, that artists will ask for my opinion on certain matters. Even so, you’re not making a record of what the producer wants but of the artist’s interpretation. You learn to respect the temperament of each artist.”
Jazz recording presents its own challenges, Epstein explains, since “you’re not adhering to a written musical score in jazz. These artists are composing from their heart, playing solos on the spot. I’ve learned an unbelievable amount from Chick Corea and Wynton Marsalis. So what kinds of suggestions can I offer? There are some signposts, but the latitude of what is acceptable is different in jazz.
“It’s different in Broadway cast recordings,” he continues, “since you have more involvement over getting the dramatic aspect of the show to come across in the sound production. Producing shows like Adam Guettel’s The Light in the Piazza has been especially fulfilling. The most important thing — for any genre — is to offer an honest overview. You’re not just looking for mistakes but for an awareness of whether the artist is delivering a successful overall performance. That’s why it’s so important for a producer to have a solid musical background.”
Epstein officially retired from Sony a few years ago but was promptly hired back as a consultant. A couple of his recent projects for Sony Masterworks just came out in September: Joshua Bell’s At Home with Friends and the “Zenph Re-performance” CD Rachmaninoff Plays Rachmaninoff. Since he started freelancing, Epstein has produced records for other labels as well, including John Adams’ Doctor Atomic Symphony (Nonesuch) and Marin Alsop’s account of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass (Naxos).
“Creating the most fertile environment possible for an artist is one of my main responsibilities,” Epstein explains. “Another is to make sure the sound is balanced. My philosophy is to create a concert hall experience in an idealized acoustic setting — without all the distractions that come with live performance. As soon as an audience comes in, it affects the quality of sound.” How, then, does he imagine his ideal sound? “I like to re-create the sense that I’m in the concert hall, with music emerging from velvety background abstractness. To accomplish that, I use as few mics as possible. I’ve made many symphonic and chamber music recordings with just two mics, since that allows for a greater sense of depth and more accurate imaging.”
Epstein has an obvious flair for feeling out how the ambience of a given space will translate through the recording process and eventually sound in the comfort of a listener’s home. His memory retains an extensive and detailed repertory of the personalities of particular studios (a good studio, Epstein insists, must have its own “character”), concert halls and churches (which are especially suitable for chamber music). “The venue becomes part of the instrument.” Yet, in all cases, “the goal is exactly the same: to replicate what one perceives as a natural concert hall sound.”
As for the widespread assumption that live performance generates a greater spark than a pristine studio environment does, Epstein suggests the matter isn’t so simple: “Clearly there’s a certain adrenaline that comes out when you have audience. But as a producer, you start to hear how much the musicians are playing out to make sure they reach the last rows. I think there’s an aggressive quality that you hear projected which is sometimes misconstrued as excitement or energy. So I prefer not to record live unless it’s to document a specific event that is historically worthy.”
Epstein’s mentor, Tom Frost, produced some famous examples of the latter with the return of Vladimir Horowitz to Carnegie Hall. Epstein points to his own Horowitz albums as one of his favorite projects of his career. “I was asked to choose from his Carnegie Hall performances between the mid-’40s to the early ’50s — many with duplicate repertoire . . . three albums’ worth of material. My main interest was in selecting great performances, even if the surface noise was less desirable. We agreed that we didn’t want to clean the original lacquers up to such a degree that it would change the sound of the piano. It was important to keep the integrity of the piano sound as Horowitz would have heard it.”
A fascinating twist on archival recordings can be found in Epstein’s recent projects employing the software designed by North Carolina-based Zenph Studios. The Zenph technique allows for “re-performances” based precisely on aging originals but retooled in state-of-the-art digital sound. Epstein first worked with this software in the landmark anniversary reissue of Glenn Gould’s 1955 Goldberg Variations (Sony, SACD multichannel). He has since applied it to Art Tatum’s Piano Starts Here and the recent Rachmaninoff Plays Rachmaninoff (culled from original performances from the ’20s to the ’40s in New York and Hollywood).
Rachmaninoff à la Zenph also appears on the latest Sony crossover release featuring Joshua Bell. Epstein says that crossover, as with any genre, has its share of good and bad (and, he acknowledges, very bad). But in his work with Yo-Yo Ma and associates, the producer has tended to promote cross-pollination rather than the dumbing down of styles. Epstein grows animated when bringing up Bell’s CD, At Home with Friends, which pairs the violinist with numerous singers (including Sting and Josh Groban), instrumentalists and — thanks to Zenph — the past. One of the tracks has Bell (taking the role originally played by Kreisler) performing the slow movement of Grieg’s Third Violin Sonata in partnership with “re-performed” Rachmaninoff. “It sounds so natural to me that I’m very pleased with it,” says Epstein. “And I think the eclectic range of the album as a whole works because it’s all so beautifully played.”
Along with the rapid evolution of sound technology, Epstein is concerned with the paradoxical de-sensitization attributable to today’s all-pervasive recording media on the internet. “Kids are exposed to much more music than ever before, which is great. But it’s mostly through mp3 and other technology that has been dumbed down to present material for the masses. When I was young, we talked about hi-fi — turntables and stereo systems — the way kids now talk about computers.”
The loss is palpable. “I think the vast majority of people are not aware of the incredible ideal of recording technology that is available. The search for high-fidelity reached a peak around the turn of the century with super-audio CD, which allows for high resolution in surround sound. What I’m hoping is that with the advent of broadband throughout the world, it will become easier to download recordings of much higher quality. Perhaps this will resuscitate the era of high fidelity. After all, digital recording changed the whole playing field as it evolved. It’s a much better vehicle for music now than it was back in the early ’80s.”