Get our free newsletter
John DesMarteau is getting excited, so he’s flapping his arms up and down as if he were just discovering that he can’t fly. He’s talking about the mystery of the creative process, about producing melodies—especially classical-music melodies—”so beautiful they bring you to tears.”
With his wire-rim glasses, cell phone in a belt pouch, and sideburns that drop well below his ears, DesMarteau still has the dweeby mien you’d expect of someone who was valedictorian of his high school in rural Ontario. But he’s hardly the average classical-music nerd. In fact, right now, he’s talking less from the vantage point of a music buff and more from that of a medical doctor.
“All the smelly gases, including glue and dry-cleaning fluid, we don’t understand how they work,” he says excitedly. “We’ve been using nitrous oxide for 158 years and still don’t know how it works. That’s the kind of process that allows one to think of music in the same way as putting someone to sleep.”
DesMarteau, 53, has been an anesthesiologist for 22 years. For the past six, he has also single-handedly owned and operated Washington’s only classical-music recording label, Americus Records. The label has released 25 CDs, including a handful of world-premiere compositions and debut recordings. Despite an eclectic roster that spans 400 years and includes such standbys as Beethoven’s 8th Symphony and Brahms’ 2nd Piano Concerto, Americus does have a mission of sorts: to tap great but little-known musicians, many of whom have spent a lifetime teaching at colleges and conservatories, and to let them tap some of the vast unrecorded repertory of classical music.
To that end, DesMarteau works from the cramped basement of his Massachusetts Avenue NW home, surrounded by boxes of unsold CDs, Macintosh computers, and a handful of music-theory texts. He’s done nearly everything himself, from designing CD covers to building Americus’ Web site (www.americuscd.com. So far, he says, he’s invested some $400,000 of his own money in the label, as well as another $125,000 in revenue from CD sales. He has yet to turn a profit.
“If I had to make a living on this,” he notes dryly, “I’d be in deep shit.”
DesMarteau was born in Montreal in 1949. When he was 10, his family moved to Cobourg, a city about 75 miles east of Toronto. As a child, he never studied music, tending toward the sciences instead. He eventually found his way to medical school at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. “Everyone in the States knows McGill,” he says, “but Queens is much better.”
DesMarteau says he spent the best year of his life as a government doctor in Inuvik, Northwest Territories—he was the only permanent surgeon in the Western Canadian Arctic. There, he was nearly 1,000 miles away from his referral hospital in Edmonton, Alberta. “When the jet left,” says DesMarteau, “I figured I was the most isolated doctor in the world.”
In 1978, he moved to Nevada with his wife and opened a medical practice in Reno. An anesthesiology residency at the SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, N.Y., followed. The couple moved to the Washington area in 1985. By 1992, DesMarteau had become an American citizen, divorced his wife, and taken his current job as an anesthesiologist for a local HMO. For the past five years, he’s been living with his boyfriend, clothing designer Alvin Thompson. “My life’s been like Brownian motion,” DesMarteau says. “There’s been no pattern.”
As DesMarteau tells it, there was nothing terribly premeditated about the decision to start his label, either. He had started guitar lessons at age 41, but after six months switched to piano. “I was extremely interested in classical music,” he says, “and I just thought [starting a label] might be an interesting thing to do and that there might be some money in it. Boy, was I dumb.”
After writing an essay on why a nonmusician would want to attend a piano master class, DesMarteau won a spot in an Alfred Brendel class at Carnegie Hall in the early ’90s. His roommate was pianist Eugene Barban, who introduced him to fellow musician Walter Hautzig. “It was February of 1996, and I went to New York, and Walter and I had lunch,” recalls DesMarteau. “I said, ‘Maybe I’ll start a record label.’”
“John comes to me and says, ‘I would like to start a label,’” recalls Hautzig. “I thought it was pie in the sky.” But the now-81-year-old pianist, who taught for 27 years at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, happened to have a tape of himself and Paul Olefsky playing the six Beethoven sonatas for cello and piano—and he was ready to turn it into a CD. “I ordered 3,000 copies of the cello sonatas,” DesMarteau recalls. “It cost me about $12,000 to manufacture those 3,000. I’ve sold about six or seven hundred.”
That was his first mistake with Americus, DesMarteau says.There’s also been the rare dig in the classical-music press, including the comments of a reviewer who wrote, of one poorly recorded Americus release, “The unacceptable sound precludes further discussion.” But DesMarteau is nonetheless pleased with what he has created: a label that gives its artists tremendous freedom. “Every artist,” he says, “especially when they interpret music, has things which talk to them. And if you let the artist deal with subject matter which speaks to them the loudest, you’re bound to get performances that are transcendent.”
His musicians appreciate that attitude. Hautzig, for example, has gone on to release three more CDs with DesMarteau. “Whenever I would want to record with a big company, they already have everything I want to play, recorded by Rubenstein, Horowitz, and Schnabel,” he says. “A major company offered me the Hummel sonatas,” he adds, referring to the early-19th-century Hungarian composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel. “I’m as interested in Hummel as last year’s snow. John, he gives me carte blanche.”
On a gray January Sunday, DesMarteau is analyzing the classical-music section at Dupont Circle’s Melody Records. It’s a somewhat sobering experience. CD sales in general are falling, and for classical music the decline has been precipitous—yet Melody’s bins are filled with hundreds, if not thousands, of recent releases. “There’s so much product,” DesMarteau says, in the midst of discussing the art of four-color reproduction, details the frustrations of shrink-wrap packaging, and critiques CD covers.
“She’s not really an opera singer,” he notes, pointing to a disc by singer Charlotte Church. “But she’s being packaged as one.”
DesMarteau’s biggest hit so far, Hautzig’s Dances for the Piano, has sold more than 6,000 copies. But most of his others have sold somewhere in the hundreds. “I’m very upfront with the artists,” he says. “I tell them, ‘Don’t put a down payment on the swimming pool.’”
It’s possible, though, that DesMarteau’s latest release, due out this month, will become his second best-seller. It’s a new recording of Enoch Arden, a melodrama with piano music written expressly for the Tennyson poem by Richard Strauss.
It’s also, for Americus, something of a new paradigm. Though several of the label’s performers are well-known within the hermetic world of classical music, they’re hardly household names. Not so with the cast of Enoch Arden: Pianist John Bell Young and actor Michael York will perform the 1864 work, which is about a shipwrecked sailor who is rescued and brought home after years of solitude—only to discover that his wife has married his best friend. Fearing that he will no longer be recognized, and will perhaps even be resented, Enoch never reveals himself to his family and dies of loneliness. It’s an archetypal, patently romantic tale.
“I could sell a couple of thousand. Possibly it could sell 10,000 copies,” says DesMarteau. “[But] I’m not holding my breath. If it does, it will be on the basis of having Michael York.”
For his part, York says he hopes the recording will help revive the melodrama, a popular 18th- and 19th-century genre in which composers wrote music to reflect the moods and characters of a particular poem or story. Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf is the best-known example. “[Enoch Arden] may bring it back into the mainstream,” York says. “Although maybe that’s too highfalutin’ and fanciful.”
Of course, stranger things have happened. “It’s like someone asks you to be in a little comedy at scale called Austin Powers, and it explodes into a monster,” says York, who has played Basil Exposition in all three films of that title. “If this works,” he adds, referring to Enoch Arden, “we will disinter the others.”
Notwithstanding the crossover potential of Enoch Arden, DesMarteau is still looking for a hit. Although his anesthesiologist’s salary has helped him stay afloat so far, he’d love to find something that will help redress, for example, the $60,000 to $70,000 that he lost on Americus just last year.
DesMarteau is a long way from giving up on classical releases, but the CD he’s currently producing is of an altogether different kind: a disc by a pop vocalist named Sajide. The singer was working as a waiter at a bed and breakfast where DesMarteau just happened to stay while on a vacation in Toronto two years ago.
“He was serving high tea,” he recalls, “and when he found out that I have a record label, he said, ‘Can I sing one of my songs?’ And out of his mouth came this great falsetto. You ought to hear him do a Patti LaBelle.”
In March, DesMarteau is sending Sajide to Los Angeles to record. He’s also starting a new record label, Embassy Row Productions, to showcase R&B acts such as Sajide’s. If all goes well, the new project will help DesMarteau expand Americus.
If Sajide doesn’t sell, however, DesMarteau suggests that his classical albums always will—no matter how slowly. “[That’s] the nice thing about Beethoven,” he says. “He doesn’t go out of fashion.” CP