The Music Makers: dreamers of dreams, and agents of change

Martin CullingfordFri 11th May 2018

From Yorkshire to Spitalfields, the RPS Awards reminded us of music's impact and relevance

As perhaps is only appropriate, running through this week’s Royal Philharmonic Society Awards, as if through a piece of music, was a motif.

The RPS ceremony, which celebrates live music-making – the spring-time equivalent, if you like, of Gramophone’s annual autumnal celebration of brilliance on record – contained its fair share of stardom and stardust. 

The London Symphony Orchestra won the Concert Series and Festivals category for ‘This is Rattle’. (To laughs, Sir Simon began his filmed acceptance speech by stating ‘This isn’t Rattle’ - i.e., it’s everybody else, colleagues both on stage and back stage; conductors always make this point, but given that the series was named after him perhaps he felt it even more incumbent on him to do so!). The Sixteen won the Ensemble Award, Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra won the Opera and Music Theatre Award, Vladimir Jurowski took home the Conductor Award, pianist Igor Levit the Instrumentalist Award, the superb guitarist Sean Shibe was named top Young Artist – and stars don’t come much starrier than Jessye Norman, upon whom the RPS bestowed its Gold Medal, adding the soprano’s name to an alumni list stretching from Brahms through to Bernstein and Barenboim.

But I feel that where the RPS Awards really excels is in its shifting of our gaze away from the usual podiums to which we invariably find ourselves staring, and towards the areas – both geographic and thematic – of music-making that touch on lives which music often doesn’t reach, and does so in a way which can often feel so inspiring. 

Take the Learning and Participation winner, Calderland – A People’s Opera, a project which emerged from the 2015 floods which wrecked homes and uprooted lives in the Calder valley. The result was a work – drawing on the participation of thousands in workshops, rehearsals and performances - which celebrated the community’s resilience, recovery and reinvention, exploring how those who felt they’d lost everything came to discover something of greater value still. A universal message of humanity, told through art, by the very people it depicts.

Or the Audience and Engagement winner – Classically Yours - which brought live orchestral music from the likes of Sinfonia Viva, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Manchester Camerata and Britten Sinfonia, to isolated coastal and rural areas in East Riding, and in the words of the jury citation ‘set out to engage new audiences by addressing inequalities of opportunity and transforming the belief in isolated communities that culture happens elsewhere.’ Also shortlisted in that category was Welsh National Opera’s virtual reality experience, which took an animated film of Magic Butterfly around the country in a shipping container, offering an immersive burst of the power of Puccini to people who might never have seen opera before. 

When the Chamber Music Award did return us to the capital, it wasn’t to the familiar concert halls, but to the old Huguenot houses of Spitalfields, where Schumann’s Dichterliebe was reimagined in a promenade performance through people’s living rooms and through the musical traditions of the immigrant communities that subsequently came to call the area home. 

And it was from all this that the motif emerged. From Sarah Derbyshire of Orchestras Live who collected the Audience and Engagement prize, we heard the phrase ‘orchestras as agents of change’. From the keynote speaker Sir Nicholas Serota, chair of Arts Council England, we received a forceful call to arms, for music to ensure it recognised the rich world around us and better addresses the complex challenge of social mobility. 

And then, from Jessye Norman herself via video from New York, an expressive recitation of Arthur O'Shaughnessy’s Ode, the text so powerfully set by Elgar in The Music Makers. That musicians are, yes, ‘the dreamers of dreams’, but even more importantly the ‘movers and shakers of the world’. 

One week after the Musicians Union published a report highlighting the financial difficulties that so many of our orchestral players find themselves in – highly-trained individuals at the pinnacle of a profession, but more to the point, the very music-makers who so enrich all our lives – such words, and such recognition from the Royal Philharmonic Society, couldn’t be more timely. 

The RPS Awards ceremony will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on May 14, at 7.30pm

Martin Cullingford

Martin Cullingford is the Editor and Publisher of Gramophone.

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