Classical musicians unwind online

It isn't over till the fat lady goes online.

As pundits bewail the rapid demise of the classical recording industry, many musicians are sidestepping traditional forms of publicity in order to get into direct touch with fans.

Whereas pop stars have a solid tradition of online diaries, fanzines, and the like, this sensibility has only recently penetrated the classical music world, sometimes with surprising results.

Japanese-born mezzo-soprano Mitsuko Shirai has been called the "Maria Callas of German classical song" for her award-winning recordings for Capriccio of highbrow music by composers Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg, and Anton Webern. Yet internauts who log onto the website of Ms. Shirai's American manager will find info on the singer's diva dog, 12-year-old Aditi, and the mezzo's favorite recipe for miso salmon (www.janicemayer.com).

Likewise, Anonymous 4, whose records of medieval music for Harmonia Mundi have been classical bestsellers despite their recondite composers – like the 12th-century nun Hildegard von Bingen – has a high-spirited and unbuttoned website (www.anonymous4.com), in which we learn tidbits about the four members: Jacqueline Horner, Susan Hellauer, Johanna Maria Rose, and Marsha Genensky.

Opera singers like Jane Eaglen (www.janeeaglen.com), conductor Adam Fischer (www.haydnphil.org), young British pianist Sam Haywood (www.samhaywood.com), and the British singing ensemble The King's Singers (www.kingssingers.com) also offer chatty, friendly websites.

So why are performers of classical music unwinding online?

Posting info about food and dogs "is a very good idea," Shirai explains. "It brings artists closer to the public and also brings artists together." Besides, Shirai adds, her miso salmon "is really a very good recipe; lots of my friends are crazy about it!"

Before hitting it big as an Anonymous 4 singer, Ms. Hellauer worked as a computer programmer in the telecom industry. The Anonymous 4 website answers questions that the group often gets "after concerts, in workshop Q&A's, etc., about who we are as individuals," Hellauer says.

"Sometimes, people just can't associate the 'angelic' music we usually sing with real people," she says. "But we're really real, and I think [the website] helps fans connect with us better."

Connecting would not seem to be a problem for promising young violinist Hilary Hahn, who was recently – with a modicum of hyperbole – proclaimed America's Best young classical musician by Time Magazine, only to be slapped down in the Daily Telegraph (London) for her website diary (www.hilaryhahn.com). The Telegraph critic accused Hahn's online jottings of being "deadly earnest and self-repetitive to the point of screaming tedium...."

In fact, the young virtuoso, who bravely continued her concert tour after Sept. 11, noted with cogent and moving detail her experiences following the tragedy:

"The hotel I stayed in had been hosting a large convention of business people, but after Tuesday morning the usual back-slapping in the lobby and hearty laughter from the bar completely dried up. Several of my friends in the orchestra and back home had nightmares, and in the middle of my last concerto performance, I caught myself imagining the stage exploding.

"It has been, in short (at least in my lifetime), an unprecedentedly sober time in which to be playing music...."

Even though an occasional critic can be annoyed by artists' websites, music lovers seem to enjoy and appreciate them.

"A common scenario is that someone hears something of ours on the radio, is struck by it, and gets onto the web at the next opportunity to look us up," Hellauer says. "Then they can e-mail us their comments and questions, and even connect to [online CD sellers] right through our discography page."

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