Fanfare Magazine Profiles Americus*
by James Reel
"Despite the fact that forming a new classical record company is a risky venture, especially in these competitive times, we believe that classical music is such a very important part of our culture that it needs more support than it currently receives in order to survive."
"My musical background is all amateur; I'm practically self-taught," says [John] DesMarteau [Americus' President]. "I knew almost nothing about music until 1990, when I decided to take guitar lessons. I was trying to learn classical guitar at the age of forty, and it was just too difficult. So I started piano lessons instead. Then it dawned on me, being a Mac user, that I might be able to do something with composition on the computer. So I bought one of the early music notation programs, called Encore, and started doing composition. My lessons were with a neighbor and a pianist in Baltimore named Michael Habermann (probably known best to Fanfare readers for the Sorabji recordings), and I studied composition with David Gaines, who was completing a Ph.D. in composition in Baltimore. I'm basically self-taught in harmony. I put myself through Walter Piston's book. I maintained my sanity when I finished it, too. I also have a number of friends who are semiprofessional musicians. They don't make a living at it, but they did give me a lot of encouragement.
DesMarteau progressed enough to be admitted to a master class given by Alfred Brendel on the Beethoven sonatas. There he met Eugene Barban, the head of the piano department at Winthrop University of South Carolina. Barban told DesMarteau about an annual master class held at his school by Walter Hautzig, a Viennese-born American student of Artur Schnabel. DesMarteau attended Hautzig's class, and the two became friends. Not surprisingly, Hautzig is featured on the first Americus release, the Beethoven sonatas, and the Variations for Piano and Cello with Hautzig's longtime friend and collaborator, cellist Paul Olefsky. DesMarteau praises Hautzig as an Earl Wild sort of Romantic pianist, one of the few left. "He certainly wouldn't win a competition today with his style of playing," DesMarteau says.
Funding for the albums at this point is coming mainly from DesMarteau's own pocket. DesMarteau bemoans the fact the classical music forms a minuscule percentage of worldwide music sales, but believes that Americans would be receptive to the music's charms if only they had greater and more meaningful exposure to it. "We're living at a frenetic pace," he says. "I have a number of friends who are not classical-music enthusiasts, but they drive home in the country's worst traffic here around Washington, D.C., and a lot of them put on classical music in the car to relax. It's almost like having a psychiatrist. It's a great stress reliever. It takes them to a place where there is some degree of meditation. But DesMarteau would prefer people not simply to zone out to Zelenka. "I would like people to understand what the people who wrote the music had in mind. Few of them did it strictly for commercial purposes; there's a lot more to music than that. And I think a large number of children would respond to classical music if they were exposed to it in a non-snobby approach. Dragging them down to the Kennedy Center and making them sit through a symphony is the wrong approach. At the Grammys a few year's back, Maxim Vengerov was playing one of the movements from, I think, a Shostakovich violin concerto. I wasn't paying much attention, so I don't remember exactly what he was playing, but what struck me was in the Presto movement he broke his bow-that's how hard be was working at it-and somebody had to hand him another one. Now, that Grammy audience is basically made up of popular music people, but when he was finished that whole audience leapt to its feet instantly and gave him a standing ovation. That shows that this music is very powerful. It can reach all sorts of people, but somehow we've never gotten it out to the people. The big record companies take whatever money they can get out of the business, and they don't promote classical music. The money needs to be put back into our children. At the concert halls the audiences tend to be grayhairs, and if that continues there won't be that many more concerts. This is too great a cultural treasure to lose."
© 1997 Fanfare Magazine
*Although this article is more than 15 years old, the philosophy contained therein is still applicable.