Interview with Joseph A. Vitacco, Proprietor of JAV Recordings
Joe thank you for sitting down with NLM to discuss your label’s most recent recording, Regina Immaculata: Music in Honor of the Immaculate Conception, featuring Duruflé’s Messe “cum Jubilo.” What is your background? How did you come to produce this, and other such recordings?
I have always loved the sound of the pipe organ and church music since I was a little kid going to church at Our Lady of Refuge in Brooklyn. I had studied organ from High School until college with John Hirten, organist at Saint James Cathedral in Brooklyn, and then with Craig Cramer as an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame. Since graduating I had worked in business, but in 1997 I combined my business skills with my love of the pipe organ and church music and founded JAV Recordings. The mission is to produce recordings of the highest quality, that encompass more then just the sound recording, but also include extensive booklets which contain stoplists, interesting essays and numerous photos to try to transport the listener to the location of the recording.
One of my top artists, Stephen Tharp, made an introduction to Christopher Berry, then Music Director at the Pontifical North American College. Christopher asked me about recording a choral CD with his choir at the college and we came up with a plan and carried it out.
JAV’s catalog prominently features many fine recordings of organ and choral music in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century French tradition. Did you begin with the idea of recording a Duruflé piece? I understand the NAC has a great devotion to Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception. How did that devotion shape their role in this recording?
The idea came from 2 other recordings I made. One is the Widor Mass recorded at Saint-Sulpice in Paris with Daniel Roth at the Grand Orgue. Not only did the recording have the Mass on it but it also contained all of the improvisations that would have happened in Widor’s day. The other is a recording of the Vierne Mass, again at Saint-Sulpice, with all of the improvisations and Propers for Easter Sunday. When Christopher asked me to make a CD and he had an all male choir the Durufle Messe “Cum jubilo” came immediately to mind. There are so many recordings of the Durufle Mass that I wanted to do something to make this one different. The decision was to use the Durufle as the Ordinary and to use the Propers for the Immaculate Conception.
Can you comment on conductor Christopher Berry’s role in the selection and recording process? How does Duruflé’s work compare or relate to the other composers recorded by your label, such as Dupré or Widor? What sets him apart from this larger tradition?
Christopher and I are both Roman Catholics who believe the music used at the celebration of the Mass should be of the highest quality. We chose Durufle since he was one of the greatest Catholic composers who lived and loved the musical traditions of chant and wrote this Mass right after Vatican II. It entirely quotes the ancient Cum jubilo Mass from the Kyriale which is used on Feasts of the Blessed Virgin. We added the Propers for the Immaculate Conception not only because of the great devotion the Pontifical North American College has to Our Lady, but because that is the patronal feast of the College. Durufle’s Mass is for baritone choir; Vierne’s and Widor’s Masses are for mixed choirs. Durufle’s Mass is entirely based on setting IX of the Mass from the Kyriale (Cum jublio), while Vierne’s and Widor’s Masses show no influence of chant. Durufle also wrote one of the smallest bodies of music compared to almost any significant composer in history.
What do you think the seminarians took away from doing this recording? How might it inform their own liturgical praxis?
Many of the seminarians who participated in this recording had never sung in a classical music ensemble. They worked very hard with Christopher Berry to record an excellent product. I hope they come away with a few things. A group of amateur singers working with an excellent choir director with a lot of dedication and hard work on their part can produce a first rate performance of some of the greatest music written to praise God. I hope this work by Durufle as well as other excellent composers and the use of chant find their way into their priestly ministries.
I understand Mr. Berry took great care to make sure the chants selected complemented the Duruflé Mass. How did he ensure this harmonic unity?
The chants we selected were the Proper chants for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. Aesthetic and harmonic unity was insured by Mr. Berry’s composition of accompaniments for the Proper chants in the style and harmonic language of Durufle.
Stephen Tharp, the organist for this production, includes some stellar organ improvisations in this work. How does he prepare for such a performance? How do they relate to the larger whole of the recording, and to the liturgy itself?
Stephen’s intention in the improvisations was to remain faithful to the language of Durufle while incorporating ideas of other musical languages somehow connected to Durufle. This provided an immediately “French” sound to the improvisations without trying to copy any one composer, thus avoiding being a parody of anything or sounding like a cliche. A bow to the Durufle-style chant accompaniments and the Durufle Messe was essential, yet there is the color of Vierne, Tournemire, Langlais, Fleury and others here and there, depending on the intensity needed at the appropriate liturgical moments. The opening Processional and closing Sortie are slightly more forward and assertive, given their functions within the mass.
I understand you, yourself, are a Catholic. How does your work with JAV Recordings relate to your own personal faith? Do you see your work here having a special mission to praise God through spreading an awareness of our Catholic musical heritage?
It has great meaning to me when I have the opportunity to record the best music Catholic composers have written to be sung or performed at the Mass. They gave their best to honor and praise God. I want to use my talents to give something back to the Church. I also want to do my part to awaken people’s knowledge of chant and some of the most extraordinary music written for the Church over the past few hundred years.
JAV Recordings is a small independent label. It often appears today classical music fans get short shrift from the big companies and distributors, as evidenced by the closure, some years back, of the wonderful Tower Records chain. How can smaller companies, such as your own, respond to this gap in the market? How do new publishing technologies and the Internet affect the work you do?
Large Companies tend to be all about making money. I have always had the mission of picking the best players, the best up and coming players, fantastic instruments, interesting music, with large well-written and researched booklets that have tons of photos. I choose projects on their merits, not on how much money they will make. That is not to say I can be careless about the company’s finances, but, as long as I can sell enough CDs to pay for the current project and future projects I am happy. To me it is about doing something that makes an artistic difference and moves people. Given technology today I can connect with customers around the world that are interested in my CD catalog in ways that 25 years ago was impossible. I see the internet as the great equalizer. It allows small independent labels to flourish. A large company would not likely have an interest in the recordings I make since the market isn’t large enough for their business model. It is big enough for me and I can make some amazing CDs that a small group of people around the world really love.
What other recordings are you particularly proud or fond of? Which was the hardest to produce?
The recordings I am most proud of are this recording I made for the Pontifical North American College, a double CD set of Thomas Murray giving a narrated tour of the massive Skinner Pipe Organ at Yale University on the first CD and the release of a live recital on the other with a 72 page booklet, Stephen Tharp playing Marcel Dupré’s programmaticic work “The Stations of the Cross” on Dupré’s own organ at Saint-Sulpice in Paris, and the soon to be released recording of the Vierne Mass recorded at Saint-Sulpice with all of the Propers for Easter Sunday with improvisations by Daniel Roth. The Vierne Mass was the hardest. There were 2 professional choirs, 2 organists and 3 soloists and it was recorded in 4 nights at Saint-Sulpice. It will be issued as a double CD set with a 64 page booklet including several essays, lots of photos, and will contain the entire missal of the day in Latin and English. The coordination of musicians on this and the editing of the book that will come with the CDs will make this the most complicated title I have produced in the past 12 years.
And where can we find your CDs?
My CDs can only be found at www.pipeorgancds.com. We aren’t in the record stores. About a half dozen CDs can be found on iTunes with more being added all the time. Also, there is a Facebook Fan Page for JAV Recordings.
It was a great honor to work with the Pontifical North American College to record and produce this recording. The faculty, seminarians and staff were wonderful to work with. This was my first trip to Italy and the Vatican; additionally seeing Pope Benedict XVI at his General Audience was inspiring.