Woman conductor breaks the mould to take Brit gold

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Marin Alsop, a rare female conductor in a field dominated by men, was honoured last night at the Classical Brit Awards.

Marin Alsop, a rare female conductor in a field dominated by men, was honoured last night at the Classical Brit Awards.

Alsop, a New Yorker who has a long track record of working in Britain, where she is principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, beat the American mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and the pianist Martha Argerich to win the female artist of the year award.

The honour comes just a fortnight before she is due to break the traditionally male preserve of the legendary Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on 8 June. She has been chosen as the first woman to conduct the orchestra because, its spokesman reportedly explained, "there were no good female conductors until now".

Alsop was joined in the line-up of award winners by the Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, who was named male artist of the year, and Katherine Jenkins, who won the album of the year prize after becoming the fastest-selling female opera singer since Maria Callas with Second Nature.

Jenkins, a former school teacher from Neath in south Wales, has enjoyed a meteoric rise since she was signed last year by Universal at the age of 23 in what was said to be the biggest record deal in UK classical recording history - an unspecified seven-figure deal.

The Classical Brits, which were set up to honour classical music and add a touch of rock-and-roll glamour in the mould of the long-established rock and pop Brit Awards, were presented at the Royal Albert Hall in London last night and will be broadcast on ITV1 and ITV3 on Sunday 29 May.

John Adams - the American composer who is artist-in-association with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which has frequently performed his music at the Proms - won the contemporary music award for On The Transmigration of Soul, which has already won three Grammies. It was composed to commemorate those who lost their lives in the 11 September attack on the World Trade Centre in New York.

The veteran film composer John Williams won the best soundtrack award for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and The Terminal.

The cellist, Natalie Clein, 28, a former BBC Young Musician of the Year, was named young British classical performer for her recording of Brahms's cello sonatas 1 and 2 and Schubert's Arpeggione Sonata.

The critics chose the Cheshire-born pianist Stephen Hough's recording of Rachmaninov piano concertos with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra for their own special award.

Hough, who divides his time between homes in Britain and America, was praised by critics for his "spontaneous sweep and grandeur".

The flautist James Galway, who will be 65 in December, was honoured for his outstanding contribution to music and was among the award winners to perform at last night's ceremony, which was sponsored by National Savings and Investments.

The ensemble/orchestral album of the year prize went to The Sixteen, a vocal ensemble founded more than a quarter of a century ago by the conductor Harry Christophers, for their chart-topping album Renaissance. Their rivals for the award included Bryn Terfel who was also shortlisted for the best album.

The ceremony was hosted by Lesley Garrett, the opera singer, with performances by popular classical favourites including Julian Lloyd Webber, the cellist, and one of the latest hot classical signings, Nicola Benedetti, a young violinist from Scotland.

* The English National opera announced that the premiere of Gaddafi, its opera about the Libyan leader by Steve Chandra Savale of the Asian Dub Foundation, has been delayed. Originally part of the forthcoming season, it will now open the 2006-07 season. Sean Doran, ENO's artistic director, said contemporary opera often reached the stage prematurely. "Our number one priority is to get this right first time," he said.

The winners

Female Artist, Marin Alsop

Male Artist, Bryn Terfel

Album of the Year, Katherine Jenkins: Second Nature

Ensemble/Orchestral Album, The Sixteen/Harry Christophers: Renaissance

Contemporary Music Award, John Adams: On The Transmigration of Soul & Road Movies

Soundtrack Composer, John Williams: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban & The Terminal

Young British Performer, Natalie Clein : Brahms, Cello Sonatas nos 1 & 2 and Schubert, Arpeggione Sonata

Critics' Award, Stephen Hough/Dallas SO/Andrew Litton : Rachmaninov/Piano Concertos

Outstanding Contribution to Music, Sir James Galway