Life-Changing Recordings: Blanton Alspaugh

GRAMMY-winning classical producer reveals the Mahler symphony that stretched his musical boundaries
  • Photo: Lester Cohen/
    Blanton Alspaugh
June 10, 2013 -- 9:58 am PDT
By As told to Paul Zollo /

(Every artist has a soundtrack that reveals their musical journey. But what is the one recording that proved to be a transformative moment? In this ongoing series, GRAMMY-winning and -nominated artists will reveal their answer to the deceptively difficult question: What recording changed your life?)

Mahler: Symphony No. 3 In D Minor
Leonard Bernstein cond. New York Philharmonic (1962)

"I heard [Mahler's Symphony No. 3] the first time when I was a freshman [at Tennessee Technology University]. It did the most to get my attention and blow out the boundaries of what was possible in music.

"It was one of those [recordings] that [opened] up a whole new range of possibilities that hadn't even occurred to me in terms of how an orchestra could sound, what you could do with one and simply the scale and the architecture of a piece like that. The first movement, at the time, extended past the limits of a single side of an LP. So it was just bigger than anything I had encountered before.

"It was certainly the composition itself that had a great deal to do with [its impact on me]. I'd sit in the music library with the recording and the score. I'd look at it, and try to absorb all that was going on. But also, it was clearly the recording and the performance [that] impacted me. Who [interpreted] Mahler more passionately and better than Leonard Bernstein? He was one of the conductors, possibly the conductor, who brought Mahler to the forefront.

"I was a trombone player in college at the time. My plan, as far as I had thought it out, was that I wanted to be a high school band director. So I was playing trombone exclusively in the band world and encountering a lot of symphonic music for the first time. There's that great trombone solo in the first movement, and as a trombone player that was one of those things I listened to and thought, 'Wow, could I ever play like that?'

"So it kind of lit a fire under me and [got] me thinking about music and a career in completely different terms. I couldn't describe it then the way I am describing it now, because at a certain point not too soon after that, I really caught the conducting bug in a serious way and ended up getting a master's degree in conducting, and trying to make a career of that, with a detour or two. I got into classical radio, which, of course, very much tied into a lifelong love affair, if you will, with recorded music. I bought records [and] I worked in a record store when I was in graduate school, one of those things a lot of musicians aspire to, if for nothing else so we can buy a lot of recordings.

"I never did get to conduct Mahler's third symphony but I did conduct some of the first and second symphonies. I did get the music out [for the third symphony] and try to play that big solo, and learn it. That's the kind of thing that will stretch a player's capabilities of, again, what's possible [and] what's necessary in order to work at a certain level."

(Blanton Alspaugh is a senior producer at Soundmirror, a Boston-based classical recording and production company. He has won four GRAMMY Awards to date, including Producer Of The Year, Classical at the 55th Annual GRAMMY Awards in February.)

(Paul Zollo is the senior editor of American Songwriter and the author of several books, including Songwriters On Songwriting, Conversations With Tom Petty and Hollywood Remembered. He's also a songwriter and Trough Records artist whose songs have been recorded by many artists, including Art Garfunkel, Severin Browne and Darryl Purpose.)

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