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Must everyone have classical prizes?

There is a good debate rolling on Slipped Disc and on social media over my disbelief at the 2013 ICMA awards.

Since at least half the jury are either friends or close colleagues of mine, the disparagement is in no sense personal. However, I do wonder why these shrewd and sensible people found it necessary to exclude anything that might resemble a commercial release – no matter how outstanding (such as the two below) – and restrict their awards to esoteric and sometimes painfully obscure releases.

natalie dessaybenedetti

Is this some kind of critical political correctness?

And another reservation: half the world’s symphony orchestras and its greatest number of classical consumers are in the US. None of the judges, nor the winners, is American. The fastest growing orchestral sector and record market is in China. None of the ICMA selections reflect this. There has been some outstanding young talent taking the world stage this past year. None figure in the ICMA awards.

It does seem that awards like this are designed to protect an ivory tower that has long since been knocked down by developers.


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  1. Dear Mr Lebrecht,

    When it comes to discussing about liking and disliking productions, we could do so for an eternity. But I will at least answer to some of the raised questions.

    You speak about commercial releases and you seem to point at ‘mainstream’. Yes, sometimes we feel that we have not to defend productions receiving a huge promotion anyway and that we could be more useful to the industry by selecting high value recordings which really deserve promotion. But, where are those obscure releases you speak about? Amarcord, Isabelle Faust, Christian Gerhaher, Kammerchor Stuttgart & Frieder Bernius, Nikolai Lugansky, Martin Fröst, Royal Scottish National Orchestra & Stéphane Denève, Truls Mørk, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig & Herbert Blomstedt, Dmitrij Kitajenko, Pierre Boulez & Vladimir Fedoseyev, the Royal Opera House, oh …I see it’s Moniuszkos ‘Verbum nobile’. You did’nt know? So go and get the recording! Quit your island, Mr. Lebrecht!

    You write: “There has been some outstanding young talent taking the world stage this past year. None figure in the ICMA awards”. That’s wrong: we have two of them, and if you did not listen to their recordings or attend their concerts , you missed something really important.

    Why do we not have any American member? You know probably that North America has few classical publications and those which we asked to come on board refused, not as a result of indifference but because the cost was to high for them. Same in China and some other Asian countries.

    As far as American orchestras are concerned: we had a winner last year with the Pittsburgh Symphony (Mahler).

    You write: “It does seem that awards like this are designed to protect an ivory tower that has long since been knocked down by developers.” Wrong again! The Ivory tower is yours and a good friend of mine, a renowned conductor, wrote me today that we should consider giving the award for the nastiest critic to you.

    • Such a fine conductor, and so brave, that you hide him behind a screen of anonymity.

    • Timon Wapenaar says:

      Actually, I was rereading some of Berlioz’s reviews just the other day, and regretting the fact that our criticism is so milksop these days. Norman, if I were you I’d accept the “World’s Nastiest Critic” prize with pride.

  2. Joshua Cheek says:

    Naturally, all of these awards, regardless of their prestige or relative merit are marketing tools! Not that that is necessarily a bad thing, especially when the honorees are truly deserving of recognition and not merely pawns in a vicious game of back-room deals and quid-pro-quos.

    Alas, if by “ivory tower” you mean the historic gate keepers of the industry, their power is as secure as ever, though a few cracks in the wall have appeared here and there. As a veteran of the American market, the neglect is mutual; the ICMA (and its previous incarnation as the Cannes Classical Awards) never moved product and therefore simply was NOT a priority for most American labels and distributors, the musicians may have felt differently but they really had little voice in the matter.

    The case of China is much more complicated, both in regard to the realities of the market, (piracy is still a major drain on revenues) as well as concert attendance. There is an extraordinarily varied and vibrant concert life in China but as of yet, the actual audience for (Western) classical music remains small. Numerous attempts to penetrate the market have been costly and largely unsuccessful – just ask Jared Sacks, Lars Hannibal, Gramophone magazine, etc. While on the subject of China, let me say that I have been a PASSIONATE advocate of China’s music for years, and while there have been a few high-profile composers to attain international recognition, (Chen Yi, Zhou Long, Tan Dun, Chen Qigang), there is an amazing amount of music being composed – much of it beautiful and innovative – but as of this writing, is mostly unexplored, unrecorded and unavailable outside of China (I am astonished that there are NO recordings of the music of Wang Xilin or Guo Wenjing in the catalogue)! In addition to China, I would also include South Korea, which IS an up-and-coming market for classical music as well as having some of the world’s most effective legislation in combating piracy.

  3. Victoria Clarke says:

    Yes, get rid of the fawning commercialism and dumbing down of classical music. The more arcane and esoteric the better! Of you want Andre Rieu and Kaff Jenkins, you’ve always got the dribbling inane Brit Awards and plenty of back patting to look forward to.

  4. Sir:

    To be honest, I think that “critical political correctness” works — for the most part — in favour of the big names with expensive publicity departments at their disposal, who thus already have more than enough lobbying on their behalf to squeeze out everybody else from the profession. Notwithstanding my strong aversion to positive discrimination, it has to be conceded part of the rationale for professionally judged awards is to bring to the public’s attention outstanding work that they might not have otherwise noticed, as opposed to simply following the money and sales (to do so would be a bit of an abdication of duty, since these fairly objective criteria can be looked up by anybody quite quickly and easily). I have no idea what the exact procedures were for these particular awards under discussion, but I do hope that some blind testing (i.e.: listening to the records without knowing the provenance) might have figured therein.

  5. Why have prizes?
    The “prize” is audience reaction.
    It is they that composers/artists perform for – or is it ?
    If the audience don’t like it, someone has got it wrong.

  6. Sylvie Montgomery says:

    There are some real winners you never see because they’re not on bellyvision – you have to get out and go to gigs.

  7. Mark Kisling says:

    Excluding mainstream productions is strange.BUT… On the other hand : main record companies spend thousands of dollars every year promoting their artists in mainstream weekly magazines what is out of any doubts! Especially nowadays when newspapers are dying and they fight for the income like never before… And every critic in this kina of magazines, starts article from such words like : amazing,superb,justin bieber of the piano and
    so on… So,anyway in this world of empty values, to keep one’s sanity ICMA made maybe unconciously good job.
    Besides…every jury has right to own choices every controversial ones.Ivory Tower ? Is this a racial debate ?
    I think Chinese artist are very well and they already have many advocates in Europe. They won’t be hurt.

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