A gala concert with a difference

The Azrieli Music Prizes (AMP) will hold its third Gala Concert later this week. Originally a competition for Jewish music, this edition saw AMP add a new strand, with composers asked to respond to the prompt ‘what is Canadian music?’ It also sees the event going totally digital for the first time. 

IAM spoke with Azrieli Music Initiatives manager Jason van Eyk to find out more about this year’s event. 

Our previous editions focussed only on Jewish music, but this time we also asked the question ‘what is Canadian music?’ What does it mean to write music in Canada today?

This is an interesting question, because like other countries we’ve been dealing with issues around race, as well as truth and reconciliation with our Indigenous populations. There are questions around land and who owns it, who is on it, how we share the space. That’s as settler colonials, as immigrants and as Indigenous people.

Canada is interesting in this regard, because there is no strong overriding national identity here. There isn’t a monoculture. Instead, there is a range of expressions that can come out of what it means to be Canadian.

Jason van Eyk
Jason van Eyk

What is the goal for the new prize? Well, we ask people to creatively and critically engage with the question. And over time we hope to build up a repertoire that poses a range of answers to this question.

We also want to avoid the stereotypes. We don’t want to end up with a piece that is too easy, that doesn’t delve deep. That’s one of the reasons why Keiko Devaux is our inaugural winner – her proposal really engaged with the question in a profound way.

We got a very good turnout, with submissions from across the country. The jury itself has people from across the country, with people from Newfoundland right across to Vancouver. We have a mix of men and women, Indigenous people, immigrants, musicologists, composers and artistic directors. They looked at all the proposals from every possible angle.

When it came to Keiko’s proposal it was unexpected, honest and hard hitting. Her musical examples were also compelling – the jury was really drawn to the music she was already writing.

I could tell we had made the right choice when people started asking about who had won. They’d ask ‘is it Keiko?’ and I’d not admit it, but they could tell by my expression that it was and they’d say ‘that’s amazing!’

It’s been really validating, because as soon as we announced Keiko had won the prize then lots of other people started programming her other works and discovering her. By the time we got around to arranging international dates for her piece we had to vie with another orchestra who’d programmed her in a festival at around the same time. So she’s a rising star.

Will there be major changes for AMP in the future? I don’t think so – the main components of what we do are stable now. We have the three prizes, the international performances and the recording deal. Those are firm commitments.

But what is new for this year is that we’ve created a performance fund for ensembles that want to perform any of our commissions. The idea is that most of the pieces are larger orchestral works, and it is difficult for ensembles to afford soloists and time to rehearse them, or even to bring the composers across. We piloted that for the first time this year, and there are six ensembles that will receive those funds in 2021-23, including groups from the US, Israel and Canada.

AMP commissions were performed by the Czech National Symphony Orchestra in Prague in 2019 © Lukas Biba
AMP commissions were performed by the Czech National Symphony Orchestra in Prague in 2019 © Lukas Biba

The other thing we’ve done is add an instrumentation cycle to the prizes. The idea is to start with chamber music this year and then move to choral, then orchestral, then an oratorio. This gives composers time to think about which piece they want to apply for. We heard from composers that they didn’t want to write for orchestra every time, and I think this instrumentation cycle will open AMP up to more genre and, more importantly, open AMP to more composers and applications.

Of course COVID has affected our work this year. In Canada we talk about the two solitudes between Francophone and Anglophone, and we’re really feeling it right now because the foundation has offices in both Toronto and Montréal. I received three concert invites yesterday for events in Montréal, and for me that’s flabbergasting because in Quebec they have been able to hold physically distanced indoor concerts and here – in Toronto – we still can’t.

As a result we had to make a significant change to our Gala Concert, which takes place on 22 October. We’d already set that date when lockdown hit in March, and for a long time it was unclear what was going to happen.

We didn’t anticipate that we’d be able to continue with the original plans, so instead we decided to have a livestream concert. We’re doing that in partnership with Medici TV and it will be available on their site as well as our Facebook page.

One of the reasons we wanted to go ahead with the Gala Concert is because we already have the recording dates for the pieces set for March 2021. The composers wouldn’t be very happy if their pieces were recorded without ever having a chance to hear them performed! The recordings will then be released on Analekta next year.

It’s easy to talk about the negatives, but an upside is that these international awards are now going to have an international audience. Before we could only focus on the audience attending the gala in person, but now we can reach out to potential listeners all over the world. We can also capitalise on the existing audience for our performance partner Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, who have toured internationally and have fans across the globe. I think it’s going to be a really wonderful – if unusual – Gala Concert.

Le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne will perform Keiko Devaux’s work Arras at AMP’s Gala Concert on 22 October, 20:00 EDT. The concert also includes pieces from the two other AMP prize winners in 2020: Yitzhak Yedid and Yotam Haber. The Gala Concert will be streamed free on Medici TV and AMP’s Facebook page. 

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