Bridge Records Holds Onto Its Niche, With a Very Firm Grip

WHEN David Starobin led a visitor recently through the headquarters of Bridge Records, a maze of rooms split between two office buildings here, he had to admit that utility trumped ornamentation in the décor. Though the complex included a sparsely appointed art department, a similarly spare editing suite, a business office and a room for Mr. Starobin packed with scores and discs, the common decorative touch seemed to be floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with 25-count CD cartons, each bearing a Bridge catalog number and abbreviated title.

“Just about all our offices are part stockroom at this point,” said Mr. Starobin, who, besides running Bridge with his wife Becky (he as director of artists and repertory, she as president), maintains an active career as a guitarist.

The clutter is small wonder: in the 30 years since Bridge released its first disc — Mr. Starobin’s “New Music With Guitar,” Volume 1 — the label has released 361 titles and made it a point of pride that they all remain in print.

Having started partly as an outlet for Mr. Starobin’s own recordings, Bridge has become the granddaddy of American independent classical labels and one of the few healthy survivors from a time when the major labels, now mostly merged and in some cases virtually moribund, pumped out discs by the dozens.

New music dominates Bridge’s catalog, with series devoted to more than a dozen important living composers and single-disc overviews of many others. But it also offers much standard repertory and a growing list of historical concert recordings, drawn mostly from the archives of the Library of Congress. There is even a modest jazz and pop line.

“I’m of the firm belief that if I like something enough, other people will too,” Mr. Starobin said. “My own taste is pretty broad. If classical music is music that we want to hear over and over again — because we keep discovering new things about it and therefore about ourselves — then that covers a lot of territory.”

As a classical independent Bridge will never be an industry titan, but the Starobins say that some of their discs have sold more than 125,000 copies, a respectable total by classical standards. They decline to provide figures for specific releases but list Garrick Ohlsson’s Beethoven sonatas and a recording of the mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing music by her husband, Peter Lieberson, both Grammy winners, among their best sellers, as well as George Crumb’s “Star-Child” and historical releases by the Budapest Quartet and the theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore.

In recent years the company has also sprouted a management arm, and on the morning of the office tour the Starobins — not only David and Becky, but also their son Rob, 31, who oversees the label’s Internet presence, and Allegra, 24, who is learning the management ropes — were juggling preparations for the label’s fall releases and plans for its free 30th-anniversary concert on Oct. 20 at the Bruno Walter Auditorium of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

The program includes scores written for the occasion by Poul Ruders and Paul Lansky but a likely highlight is Mr. Starobin’s performance of movements from Mr. Crumb’s “Mundus Canis” (“A Dog’s World”), with the composer playing percussion.

“I’m not a percussionist at all,” Mr. Crumb said in a telephone interview. “David talked me into it. I wrote the piece for him. In fact he’s played every single plucked instrument part I ever wrote. One day he called and said, ‘If you learn the percussion part to “Mundus Canis,” we’ll fly you to the French Riviera, and we’ll play it at Cannes.’ So I took him up on that, and now we’re playing it again.”

Mr. Crumb in many ways represents Bridge’s greatest strength. His music was included on one of the label’s first releases, a disc by the pianist Lambert Orkis with scores by Mr. Crumb and Richard Wernick. That recording led to other Crumb projects, which blossomed into a comprehensive series that now includes 15 volumes. Among Bridge’s other high-profile-composer series are discs devoted to Mr. Lansky (10), Elliott Carter (8), Mr. Ruders (6) and Tod Machover (4).

Mr. Starobin, 60, got his introduction to record making in the early 1970s, when he recorded the Boccherini Guitar Quintet in E minor at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont. Mischa Schneider, the cellist of the Budapest String Quartet, produced the disc, and Mr. Starobin, surprised at the freedom with which Mr. Schneider edited between takes and tinkered with balances, asked pointedly how you could square the manipulations of the production process with the notion that recordings were meant to document performances.

“Mischa’s advice about making recordings centered around one basic idea,” Mr. Starobin said. “He told me that as a producer, everything you do is about serving the score. From sound to balancing to editing, the only important thing is the composer’s intention.”

What the Starobins have learned on their own is that the recording process also includes a lot of fund-raising, an arduous task Bridge shares with its performers and composers. Mr. Starobin said it took about five years to raise the money for one of Bridge’s latest releases, a recording of works by Melinda Wagner (who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999) with the New York Philharmonic.

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