Eyes on the Prizes

In this special feature, International Arts Manager goes behind the scenes at the Azrieli Music Prizes, top awards for composers both in Canada and internationally, in anticipation of the Gala Concert later this month

“The Azrieli Prize is no run-of-the-mill award,” says Dutch-born, US-based composer Yotam
. “In fact, it may very well be the most exciting, brilliantly engineered opportunity for a composer.”

The biennial Azrieli Music Prizes (AMP) are indeed an extremely well-designed opportunity for composers. The brainchild of Dr. Sharon Azrieli, the noted soprano and arts innovator, the prizes have celebrated excellence in composition for Canadian and Jewish music since 2014. (Haber was awarded his prize in 2020.)

There are actually three prizes: The Azrieli Commission for Canadian Music supports the creation of a new musical work that “engages with the complexities of composing concert music in Canada today.” The Azrieli Prize for Jewish Music is awarded to the composer of “the best new undiscovered work of Jewish music.” And The Azrieli Commission for Jewish Music supports the creation of a musical work that creatively and critically engages with the question, “What is Jewish music?”

Each winner receives a generous cash prize of $50,000 CAD. And there are opportunities beyond those that the money provides. Through AMP, the Azrieli Foundation also shows its dedication to career development and professional support. Laureates get a commercial recording of their prize-winning work, and three live international performances, including one at the biennial gala.

Next month’s AMP Gala Concert promises to be one of the best yet. It takes place on October 20th at 7:30 PM (ET) at Maison symphonique de Montréal and will feature the prize-winning works from all three 2022 AMP Laureates. Their diversity of style and instrumentation will lend a truly multicultural flavour to the evening while still reflecting Canadian and Jewish influences.

The concert will be livestreamed by the world’s leading classical music channel, Medici TV, free for all to enjoy. Tickets for the live concert, priced from $34.50 to $103.50 CAD, are on sale here.

The lineup gives every indication the audience should expect strong compositions supported by strong performances.

Above: Iman Habibi (Photo: Deborah Grimmett)

Iman Habibi‘s commission is Shāhīn-nāmeh, a song cycle for voice and orchestra based on the 14th-century Judeo-Persian poetry of Shahin Shirazi. Habibi, winner of the Azrieli Commission for Jewish Music, describes it as “incorporating a Persian traditional singing style in the solo part against a backdrop of Western classical instruments.”

The composer adds: “The result will be an exciting fresh sound, a marriage of many different cultural and musical languages. It is my hope that Shāhīn-nāmeh can bring much-deserved attention to this little-known poetry, but also show the close affinity that has existed historically between Persians and Jews dating back centuries.”

Rita Ueda, winner of the Azrieli Commission for Canadian Music, says that her commission, Birds Calling… from the Canada in You, for shō, suona/sheng and orchestra, “aims to create an immersive environment that vividly portrays the Canadian natural soundscape.”

“Growing up in Canada, I have always felt that traditional Western birdsong works do not sound like any birds I know,” Ueda explains. “There are no works about our Blue Jays, Snowy Owls, Gyrfalcons or Anna’s Hummingbirds.”

Birds Calling also continues her pursuit of a new transcultural musical identity, bringing together Chinese, Japanese and Western musical traditions, all the while asking, “What does it mean to migrate and settle on land already rich in history?”

Above: Rita Ueda (Photo: Alistair Eagle)

The prize-winning Jewish music piece is Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O Lord, for soprano and orchestra. Its composer, Aharon Harlap, is one of Israel’s most prominent composer-conductors.

The piece draws its inspiration from the psalms, with the soprano part sung in the original Hebrew. There’s a Canadian connection here as well: Harlap started his music career in Canada before emigrating to Israel.

He explains that for him, “the immense recognition of the award” completes a kind of circle: “I grew up in a Jewish home in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Both my parents were involved with Jewish music, my mother as a singer of Jewish liturgical music and my father as a cantor in the synagogue.”

Above: Aharon Harlap (Photo: Hadassah Harlap)

The winning pieces will be premiered by Orchestre Métropolitain – one of Canada’s leading ambassadors for symphonic music (pictured at the top of this feature, photo by Ludovic Rolland Marcotte), founded in 1981 – under the direction of French conductor Alexandre Bloch. In addition, soprano Sharon Azrieli, vocalist and setar player Sepideh Raissadat, shō player Naomi Sato and suona and sheng player Zhongxi Wu will be joining the orchestra as soloists.

“It was a great honour”: listening to the 2022 AMP laureates

To truly get an idea of the impact of the Azrieli Music Prizes on the lives and careers of the laureates, you have to listen to the composers, who invariably express a sense of delight and gratitude, and reflect the foundation’s focus on supporting composers and their music…

Kelly-Marie Murphy won the 2018 Azrieli Commission for Jewish Music for En el escuro es todo uno, a double concerto for cello and harp inspired by Ladino folk songs.

“It was a great honor to win,” she says. “And I think it came at a great point in my career: it helped to keep my name in the public mind and was a much-needed boost to my confidence.”

Murphy is also enjoying lasting benefits from the award: “My piece has gone on to have many performances and is scheduled three times this season.”

Yotam Haber, meanwhile, was awarded the 2020 Azrieli Commission for Jewish Music for his piece, Estro Poetico-armonico III, which draws inspiration from modern Israeli poetry as well as the music of the Jewish community of Rome.

“We are often drilled as composers that external validation is not what it’s about: one must simply write music for music’s sake,” he says. “Nevertheless, I was so energized and invigorated upon learning the jury had selected me. These [the members of the jury] are musicians whom I have deeply admired for decades. That positive, electrifying energy carried me as I wrote Estro Poetico-armonico III during the darkness of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is a work that I am especially proud of, an important turning point, I think.” 

Above: Yotan Haber (Photo: Civitella Ranieri Foundation)

2022 laureate Iman Habibi echoes that combination of inspiration of validation: “The opportunity to write a large-scale work for orchestra, in which the composer §gets to have near–complete control over artistic decisions and the choice, even the musical style, of the soloist – that’s quite rare for us composers these days.

“This has been a refreshing change for me, and I have used the opportunity to try to bring together two different musical worlds of mine together. The Azrieli Foundation empowers and enables the composer to be at their best.”

The Azrieli Music Prize in 2022 and Beyond…

Like all the best initiatives, the Azrieli Music Prizes have broader implications. AMP is Canada’s largest competition devoted to music composition, and has raised the profile of Canadian and Jewish music…

“The Azrieli Foundation has been successful in generating discussion not only about what is Canadian music or Jewish music, but what it can be,” says Jason van Eyk, the Manager of Music, Arts and Culture Initiatives at the Azrieli Foundation. “We aim to be as open and forward-looking as possible while still drawing from these two traditions, which are often misunderstood or even overlooked within contemporary classical music.”

As the same time, the Azrieli Foundation has been increasing the international footprint of the prizes.

“We’ve been focused on making AMP a truly international competition,” van Eyk continues. “We give every effort to ensuring that the concerts are of the highest quality – in Canada, of course, but also when we present in Warsaw, Prague, New York City, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv. We’ve successfully increased the pool of applicants by 30 per cent over the span of the Prizes, but most especially for the Jewish Commission, when we opened it up to international composers.

“But we’re still really focused on making the greatest impact for composers and their compositions. We want to extend the reach of the winning works of our laureates. We want to advance their careers, so they attract other high-profile commissions, gigs, and awards.”

The biggest development is the new prize for 2024: The Azrieli Commission for International Music. This exciting new competition “invites composers worldwide to creatively engage with the richness of humanity’s diverse cultural heritage, with the primary goal of fostering greater intercultural understanding through music.”

Its prize package will be just as generous as the other three. (More details will become available when AMP releases its 2024 Call for Scores and Proposals in February 2023.)

Sharon Azrieli, the acclaimed sporano who conceived of the Azrieli Music Prizes, points out that 2024 marks the tenth anniversary for AMP, and so the new award is well-timed.

“I can’t think of a more inspiring way to celebrate this significant milestone in our history than by launching the Azrieli Commission for International Music,” she says.

Above: Sharon Azrieli (Photo: Jeffrey Hornstein)