Classical Music Awards: Accolades sound in electric atmosphere: The International Classical Music Awards in association with Kenwood Corporation and the Independent: Robert Maycock sees, and hears, a vision come alive at Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
YOU COULD tell it was going to work when the orchestra started applauding. Already there had been a buzz around the hall after John Eliot Gardiner had taken the award for the Monteverdi Choir: the choir itself strolled on to the platform and sang two pieces by its namesake composer.

The second was an erotic madrigal, sounding years ahead of its time. 'Puccini's not far around the corner,' observed Gardiner, chatting informally and enthusiastically to the audience before conducting a properly panting performance. Then the atmosphere went electric as the all-day televised Tosca from Rome took the award for Single Event of the Year, and Placido Domingo strode in to collect it.

But it was the Alban Berg Quartet, Chamber Group of the Year, and the Vienna Philharmonic, Orchestra of the Year, that drew the big hand from the professionals of the BBC Philharmonic, sitting on stage to punctuate the ceremony with performances of their own. The International Classical Music Awards, it was clear, were gaining the respect of the winners' peers - the hardest accolade of all.

The origin of the awards, presented in Symphony Hall, Birmingham on Friday, goes back several years, to a conversation between the television producer, Ultan Guilfoyle, and Bob Geldof. The idea, says Mr Guilfoyle, now the executive producer of the awards, was simply to celebrate the performance of classical music: 'It was important to us that they should be viewed throughout the world of music as a genuine and considered attempt to celebrate excellence and achievement, in the widest sense, and among the widest constituency.'

Geldof and Guilfoyle set out to bring the vision to life. The Kenwood Corporation, makers of hi-fi equipment and more specialised electronics, came in as sponsor. Mr Guilfoyle's company, Stella Pictures, took on the setting-up and recording; Symphony Hall was booked. The Independent lent its support. 'I didn't take a moment to think about it,' Andreas Whittam Smith, editor and chief executive, recalled on Friday. 'It just was, and is, a very good idea.' Later the new BBC Music Magazine joined the Independent in polling readers for the Personality of the Year.

Crucially, the net was cast wide in seeking nominations and in setting up the judging. No single sector of the musical world, or industry, dominated the awards - a very different state of affairs from some past schemes or competitions. Scepticism about vested interests had to be allayed. What settled it for one leading London agent was the range of organisations, representative of various musical constituencies, that had been approached to nominate candidates.

On the night, the assembled guests in Symphony Hall started curious and a little stiff. But they relaxed, at first cautiously and then freely: the energy level at the end, two and a half hours on, was high enough to inspire a retake of the opening for the television recording. Photographs of Dhruva Mistry's award sculpture loomed over the stage; the sculptures themselves became an increasing focus of fascination.

Yan Pascal Tortelier, the orchestra's conductor, had to shuttle to and fro and elicit a gamut of musical moods at a second's notice. Dominic Muldowney's specially commissioned piece, a polka, mixed echoes of Stravinsky and shafts of satire with his own brand of subtle allusiveness and rhythmic trickery. Its outrageous blaring tune had become quite an old friend by the end of the show, to judge by the way a section of the audience was practically dancing in its seats.

Late on, Evelyn Glennie galvanised the hall with a mini- concerto for xylophone. Yet the orchestral event of the night was a devastating performance of Ravel's La Valse, given as an interlude midway but, with its scary demolition of the traditional Viennese waltz, very much the spectre at the feast - chilling enough for Melvyn Bragg, who co-presented the awards with Julia Migenes, to button his jacket.

The Alban Berg Quartet played more Ravel, exquisitely. The finest musical moment of all was Andras Schiff's eloquent delivery of an unfinished piano piece by Schubert, which simply breaks off in mid-flight. But then all the winners had their moments, whether the engaging, wholehearted baritone of Bryn Terfel or the scintillating ingenuities of John Corigliano's opera, The Ghosts of Versailles. So did the presenters; Julia Migenes, with only the tiniest pointed emphasis, brought off a tribute to 'the 123 men who make up the Vienna Philharmonic'.

What were the downsides? Too many mega-events among the winners, suggesting that size talks; three appearances from Placido Domingo, including the final spot, but the audience's hopes for a live singing performance not fulfilled; too traditional a definition of 'classical music', which did not reflect the extension of its boundaries accepted as a matter of course by all young listeners and a growing number of professionals. In a frank article for the programme book, John Rockwell, the New York Times critic and member of the judging panel, questioned some of the procedures, reported that 'the British members pluckily continued to plug their own artists' and made constructive suggestions for the future.

A strong start, seemed to be the consensus afterwards, coupled with an awareness of potential, critical and supportive. Michael Berkeley, the composer and radio presenter who had the task of warming up the audience, caught one feeling beforehand: 'With something like this which is still in its infancy, it's right that we should be looking at ways of making it better.' But the categories were generally thought to be well chosen: composition of the year, for instance, rather than composer. The determination to reward the really live areas - the fact that many of the awards honoured new music or early music - won particular praise.

The director of the Wien Modern festival, Karsten Witt, seemed genuinely amazed that his event, founded five years ago by Claudio Abbado, should be 'Festival or Concert Series of the Year': 'I'm impressed that it's possible to win a classical music award with a new music festival.' Mr Whittam Smith, speaking afterwards at a dinner given by the Lord Mayor of Birmingham, recalled 'a lot of deep thinking, a lot of discussion, some big arguments, some easy conclusions. I would love to have published a full report of those five hours it took to judge the awards. But the awards will enlarge our horizons. I think we are here at the beginning of something rather remarkable.'

The judges: Andreas Whittam Smith (chairman); Soren Meyer-Eller, editor, FonoForum; Gotz Friedrich, opera director; Lady Groves; Takeshi Hara, executive director, NHK Symphony Orchestra; Nicholas Kenyon, controller, BBC Radio 3; Cesare Mazzonis di Pralafera, artistic director, Teatro Comunale, Florence; Christopher Raeburn, record producer; John Rockwell, journalist and critic, New York Times; Eve Ruggieri, television producer, journalist and critic.