Great Moments in Classical GRAMMY History (Yes, there are some!)

When most people think of the GRAMMY awards, they think of the annual television broadcast where the hottest current pop stars perform by and winners are revealed in major categories like Best New Artist and Record of the Year. But many people don’t know that the week leading up to that Sunday broadcast is packed with events honoring great musicians from many genres, including classical!

Attending the broadcast is very exciting, of course, but every year I’ve had the good fortune to go, I’ve thought about how great it would be to see a classical nominee or two among the televised performances. I was even so bold as to mention the issue to Recording Academy president Neil Portnow when I spoke to him last year. He agreed that more classical performance would be welcome, but pointed out that big-name classical musicians tend to be booked up years in advance. And that’s true – professional classical musicians do tend to keep very busy.

I was pretty excited, then, to get the recent news that classical pianist Lang Lang will perform with heavy metal band Metallica on this year’s broadcast! The Los Angeles Times responded to the news by snarkily deadpanning, “It is the pairing that classical music fans have been eagerly awaiting for years.” Admittedly, that it wouldn’t have been the first idea to come to mind, but I’ve been saying for years that there’s plenty of classical music that rocks out, so why not? (Besides, it’s not Metallica’s first classical encounter – they worked with the San Francisco Symphony way back in the 1990s.) I don’t expect they’ll perform any of the Chopin or Rachmaninoff works that Lang Lang is known for, but I’m open to the surprise of whatever their collaboration brings.

After all, anything that raises the profile of classical music with audiences who may not yet know they love it is a step in the right direction. And that got me thinking about past classical-focused GRAMMY moments. I’ve witnessed a few memorable ones in person over the past four years, and I did a little digging into more distant GRAMMY history to see what more I could find.

1. Joyce DiDonato, 54th GRAMMYs Pre-Tel Ceremony

The majority of awards are announced the day of the broadcast at an untelevised (but now web-streamed!) ceremony that also includes performances from several genres. Each year a classical performer is featured, and I get super-excited and proud while many other audience members think it’s a good time for a bathroom break. I get it – the presentation of 70-some-odd awards does make for a long afternoon! But when Joyce DiDonato took the stage at Pre-Tel in 2012, something magical happened. It was just the singer and her piano accompanist, in stark contrast to the larger amplified groups that had come before, so the audience might have been deceived into not expecting much. But as she rolled out the dazzling vocal pyrotechnics of her aria, you could hear a pin drop in the audience. DiDonato knocked ‘em dead, and I just about shot into orbit.

2. eighth blackbird, 55th GRAMMYs Pre-Tel Ceremony

I mentioned that many people are unaware of the classical music presence at the GRAMMYs; another thing many people don’t know about classical music is that it’s still being written. At last year’s Pre-Tel, GRAMMY-winning chamber ensemble eighth blackbird showed off the rockin’ side of classical with a high-energy performance of these broken wings, composed in 2008 by David Lang.

3. Rhapsody in Blue, Dueling Pianos Style

It turns out that this year won’t be Lang Lang’s first appearance on the GRAMMYs – in 2008 at the 50th GRAMMYs, he and jazz legend Herbie Hancock shared the stage and traded riffs in George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, one of the first pieces that brought jazz music into the classical concert hall.

4. Pavarotti’s Unexpected Understudy

Legendary tenor Luciano Pavarotti had been scheduled to sing his signature aria, “Nessun Dorma,” at the 40th GRAMMY Awards in 1998, but had to withdraw at the last moment due to throat problems. Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin stepped in and brought down the house. A year later, Pavarotti appeared on the 41st GRAMMYs and made up for his absence.

5. Placido Domingo presents Best Opera Recording Award

Tenor Placido Domingo presented the GRAMMY for Best Opera Recording Award at the 27th GRAMMY Awards in 1985, and the winner was the recording of Bizet’s Carmen on which he appeared. “I want to thank the big winner today,” he said, “I think the big winner is opera, because the award is on television.” Click here for video.

I can’t wait to see which classical artist will keep folks in their seats at Pre-Tel this year… meanwhile, I’ll be trying to imagine how “Master of Puppets” might sound on the piano!

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