Live review – Royal Philharmonic Society Awards 2023 @ Queen Elizabeth Hall

From left: RPS Awards winners Anna Lapwood, Abel Selaocoe, Leeds Piano Trail, The Endz, Manchester Collective

Queen Elizabeth Hall
2 March 2023

by Ben Hogwood

Timing is everything in music – and as the attendees of the Royal Philharmonic Society Awards unanimously agreed, both the show and its message at the Queen Elizabeth Hall were just what classical music needed.

As RPS chairman John Gilhooly emphasised in his no holds barred opening address, times in the industry are hard. Arts Council England have never been less connected with classical music than they are currently, looking past its versatility and potential to make increasingly bizarre funding decisions. All working in music are affected, from those starting out in education and learning their first instrument to those receiving music as therapy and stimulation for dementia and good mental health. Music, it is clear, should not be treated as a ‘nice to have’ extra. Rather, it is a galvanizing force bringing good into the lives of everyone ready to receive it, as we all saw during lockdown and as we experience from day to day.

Gilhooly’s passionate speech threw down a gauntlet to the government and Arts Council but did so in the spirit of collaboration and community. These two words appeared at regular intervals throughout the evening, which captured a wide range of heartwarming and inspirational work taking place around the country, in spite of these restrictions.

Winners included the Torbay Symphony Orchestra, representative of so many life-giving amateur ensembles around the UK in the joy they bring to so many who take part or spectate. Joy, too, is at the heart of Anna Lapwood’s tireless and effervescent work, the organist deservedly collecting the Gamechanger award for her achievements in bringing the instrument to a whole new audience. Put #playlikeagirl into TikTok or Instagram, and you’ll see what I mean!

The awards, stylishly presented by BBC Radio 3 anchors Petroc Trelawny and Hannah French, captured classical music in so many different forms. Timothy Ridout, a shining viola player of the present and future, credited his Luton and Bedfordshire musical roots as key to the Young Artist Award. Abel Selaocoe won the Instrumentalist Award, the cellist expanding the scope of his instrument to encapsulate non-Western musical traditions. How remarkable that an instrument with such a long history continues to develop.

There were even happy pandemic stories. Theatre of Sound won the Opera and Musical Theatre award, their production of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle born during lockdown and executed in Stone Nest, just off Shaftesbury Avenue in London. Martyn Brabbins, music director of English National Opera, deservedly won the Conductor award for his fearless work with the beleaguered company, in which he continues to form strong connections with his musicians, old and new alike.

The Multi-Story Orchestra won the Impact Award for their searing production The Endz, expressing the feelings of a young Peckham group for the death of teenager Malcolm Mide-Madariola, killed while standing up for a friend in a knife fight. Even the brief excerpt we heard conveyed their strength of feeling, and their acceptance speech confirmed how cathartic music had been in expressing their feelings.

One of the most poignant moments of the night came when Manchester Camerata’s film Untold – Keith (above) earned them the Storytelling Award, confirming once again the power of music to help people cope better with dementia. Meanwhile on the streets Leeds Piano Trail won the Series and Events Award for their strategically placed pianos, bringing more than 200,000 aspiring musicians to the city centre, while composer Gavin Higgins took the Large-Scale Composition Award for his Concerto Grosso, a rousing success at the BBC Proms with the Tredegar Town Band and BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Ryan Bancroft.

The live music in the awards was astutely programmed. Sheku Kanneh-Mason gave a striking excerpt from the Cello Sonata no.2 by Leo Brouwer, written for him and fresh off the page in a first performance. Soprano Anna Dennis, winner of the Singer Award, sang a striking song of Elena Langer, Stay O Sweet beautifully weighted with beautifully floated counterpoint from oboist Nicholas Daniel.

The most distinctive musical voice of the night, however, was that of composer Ben Nobuto. Having won the Chamber-Scale Composition Award for the innovative SERENITY 2.0, and somehow achieving an authentic and wholly original balance between Frank Ocean and Caroline Shaw in the process, he joined Ensemble Award winners Manchester Collective for a performance of Danish folk song Old Reinlender. This was cleverly approached from the first movement of Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor, the join between the two almost imperceptible but negotiated in joyful, songful music.

Sadly no members of Arts Council England were present to witness any of these musical tonics – it is to be hoped they will listen when the awards are aired on BBC Radio 3 on Monday 6 March. You should listen too, for you will find classical music, in spite of all its challenges, is swimming strongly against the tide.

You can watch the Royal Philharmonic Society Awards on the RPS website within the next week – while BBC Radio 3 will broadcast the ceremony, presented by Petroc Trelawny and Hannah French, on Monday 6 March. Click here to listen

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