Joanna Nickrenz: 1936–2002
Yet her death was not even reported by her hometown newspaper, The New York Times, and to our chagrin, we remained unaware of it until reader Dan Castro wrote in, commenting, "Many of my favorite recordings are the result of her collaboration with engineer Marc Aubort. Her name and [that of] Elite Recordings on an LP or CD liner meant quality sound."
Ms. Nickrenz, a lifelong smoker, died in her home of complications from lung cancer. She had been quite ill for the preceding year, but she continued to work conscientiously until her final hospitalization in November. Her last recording session was in October, a date in Germany with Gioria Feldman, the klezmer clarinetist with whom Ms. Nickrenz and Mr. Aubort had collaborated on over 30 recordings. Ms. Nickrenz was released from the hospital on Christmas day and remained at home until her death.
This year, as in many others, she was nominated for a Grammy award as Best Classical Producer (for the Angeles String Quartet's Complete Haydn String Quartets on Philips). Although she did not win this year, Ms. Nickrenz had been awarded three previous Grammys during her career: Best Classical Album of 1996 for her recording of Corigliano's Of Rage and Remembrance: Symphony No. 1 with the National Symphony Orchestra; Classical Producer of the Year (1996) for that same recording; and a shared award with Mr. Aubort for Classical Producer of the Year (1983).
Born Joanna Dale Volz on May 25, 1936, Ms. Nikrenz spent her early years in Seattle, where she studied to become a concert pianist. She was a member of the Pittsburgh Symphony under William Steinberg and performed actively in several chamber music ensembles, among them the New Chamber Quintet and the Claremont String Quartet, which hired her to record Schoenberg's "Ode to Napoleon." Those recording sessions sparked a consuming interest in the recording process and led her to take a job with engineer Marc Aubort's Elite Recordings. Starting as an assistant, she went on to become a full partner, producer, and editor.
Her ability to master complex scores was certainly an asset, but it was her ability to hear everything that consistently amazed her colleagues. "She was unbelievable," Marc Aubort told Musical America. "Her ears were legendary; she was nicknamed 'Ms. Razorears.'"
Aubort calculates that the team worked with more than 45 conductors in the course of their 32-year collaboration. Among their best-known work is the series of recordings they made of American orchestras for Vox during the 1960s and '70s. Several of those albums have garnered the reputation among audiophiles of being among the very finest-sounding orchestral recordings ever made, although the performances weren't always the equal of the sonics.
The team also recorded a now legendary series of Joan Morris/William Bolcom projects for Nonesuch, including the popular After the Ball, a collection of Victorian songs. They also recorded the Seattle Symphony for Delos and the Dallas Symphony for EMI, among countless others. "We did about 20 projects a year," Aubort said.
Eric Dolphy said, "When you hear music, after it's over—it's gone, into the air. You can never capture it again." Ms. Nickrenz spent a lifetime proving that didn't have to be the case. Her remarkable legacy attests to her talent and judgment, and will remain vital for as long as listeners value the true sound of music played in a real space. We mourn her passing as we celebrate her life's work.