The 2021 Royal Philharmonic Society Awards – saluting musical heroes

written by Ben Hogwood

If an awards ceremony does its job properly, it should provide those attending and watching with lasting feelings of inspiration, hope and even wonder.

The Royal Philharmonic Society Awards did just that at the Wigmore Hall on Monday, recognising some superhuman musical achievements as we dared to think in more hopeful terms of classical music emerging from the pandemic.

Restrictions such as those imposed in lockdown can often bring out the best in creative minds, and the 13 awards made during the evening showed this time and time again. When such minds are backed into a corner, some of the solutions can be truly mindboggling. You can judge for yourself when the Awards are published online next week, and aired on BBC Radio 3 on Monday 8 November (to open in a new window click here)

Perhaps the most striking and wide reaching initiative on show was ENO Breathe, the program set up for sufferers of long-Covid to help with breathing and anxiety, and now rolled out to 50 NHS Trusts across the UK. All the people involved in its creation were rightly acknowledged here, praising a program which has benefited from the expertise of opera singers and colleagues at Imperial College Healthcare:

It was indeed a night to acknowledge the tireless work of those behind the scenes, who effectively enable their organisations or teams to give the appearance of a swan while they work feverishly beneath the surface. Bassoonist Ashby Mayes is a prime example. He gave a bubbly performance of Weber’s Rondo Ongarese with pianist Kumi Matsuo, but then violinist Nicola Benedetti revealed his ‘other’ vocation as technology inventor and troubleshooter as part of The Benedetti Foundation’s online work.

Benedetti rightly added the Instrumentalist Award to her already impressive armoury, for she is a true modern ambassador for classical music. With the ability to face outwards to politicians but also inwards to those at early or difficult stages in their musical journey hers is a consistently inspiring presence.

As the evening progressed it became ever clearer that each category had three nominations that were effectively winners, and they were recognised as such in the excellent presentations from RPS Chief Executive James Murphy, RPS Chairman and Director of Wigmore Hall John Gilhooly and BBC Radio 3 presenter Katie Derham. They all brought a fresh and enthusiastic approach to the awards, sharing with us the delight of simply being in the same room again.

Further inspiration came from Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason, winner of the Storytelling Award for her book House of Music. In revealing just how many publishers had turned down the volume ‘because black people don’t play classical music’ (!) she illustrated just how persistence and endurance can overcome such ridiculous hurdles. Peter Brathwaite, nominated for his Radio 3 program In Their Voices, showed the same thing

Elsewhere there were joyous stories of music making in lockdown, providing solace to everyone. The World How Wide, led by the Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia, won the Series and Events Award with a vibrant recasting of Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia, showing off the region’s natural beauty with a film directed by NOVAK that made you want to be there:

Meanwhile Hilary Campbell and the Bristol Choral Society used online resources in the best possible way to launch a new CD and a Christmas carol competition for new composers. They won the Inspiration award, showing in the process how amateur music making is so important to the mental and physical health of all the country’s musicians. Good CDs can enlighten and inspire us, but first-hand musical experiences can rarely be bettered.

This can be felt throughout the Bold Tendencies initiative in Peckham, Hannah Barry’s transformation of a disused multistorey car park claiming the Gamechanger Award. Dani Howard’s Trombone Concerto, written for Peter Moore and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, confirmed its status as a powerful new vehicle for the instrument, while Jennifer Johnston won the Singer Award for her artistry and services to the same city. Back online, meanwhile, Vopera claimed the Opera and Music Theatre Award for their vibrant and imaginative digital production of Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges, brilliantly backed by musicians from the London Philharmonic Orchestra:

Other winners – last but certainly not least – included Laura Bowler, who won the Chamber-scale Composition Award for her remarkable work Wicked Problems, the composer performing with bass flautist Ruth Morley at the ‘sound’ festival in Aberdeenshire. Ryan Bancroft won the Conductor Award to supplement his burgeoning reputation with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and Edinburgh’s Dunedin Consort capped a year of stellar online music making, including the premiere of Errollyn Wallen’s opera Dido’s Ghost, with the Ensemble Award:

Finally we heard from the Hermes Experiment, winners of the Young Artist Award. This exciting and highly original ensemble comprises soprano (Heloise Werner), clarinet (Oliver Pashley), double bass (Marianne Schofield), harp (Anne Denholm) and co-director Hanna Grzeskiewicz. The group stand for original creation of mostly new music in an open and diverse musical setting. Their contagious love and boundless enthusiasm was at the heart of Pashley’s arrangement of Piazzolla’s Concert d’aujourd’hui, capturing the spirit of a bright and uplifting evening.

Our wholesome congratulations go to all the nominees for the RPS Awards – and indeed to all of those unnamed who did not quite make the shortlist. You are all winners in our eyes!

To learn more about the Royal Philharmonic Society visit their website

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