A few weeks ago, before one word was written for this LEO music issue, a group of staff writers and freelancers got together for pizza and an “idea session.” Ideas, those elusive, beautiful, challenging beasts that drive us to stay up all night looking for missing words, the right paint color, the best way to ask a question.
As we compiled notes, riffed on the subjects of technology and success, content over fashion and mutant versus human, we came to a democratic-ish solution about what we might include in this annual music issue. The most difficult (and rewarding) part was when we asked ourselves how to be more diverse, more inclusive and more original in our approach. It’s one thing to ask the question, certainly, but how do you really support the bold thinkers and innovators? How do you bring a world of ideas to Louisville? How do we assess (and reassess) our own expectations, and then open them up?
For the last 21 years, the Grawemeyer Awards, in collaboration with the University of Louisville and the Presbyterian Theological Seminary, have offered something truly remarkable to our city. The story of their invention is a testament to the vitality of Louisville, and a call for all of us to keep growing and keep working on the future.
Charles Grawemeyer, a 1934 alumnus of the University of Louisville Speed Scientific School, found success as the CEO of Reliance Universal, Inc. and Plastic Parts, Inc. After making a modest fortune, he retired in 1977 and continued to excel as an investor. His thoughts turned to philanthropy and the honoring of ideas.
Grawemeyer (or “Charlie” as he preferred) wanted to celebrate the world’s most diverse and unique thinkers with an award that contained profound financial support for their work. He also wanted to give thanks to the University of Louisville and the Presbyterian Seminary, places that had been essential to his education during the Great Depression.
In 1983, Grawemeyer met with Dr. Jerry Ball, then dean of the U of L Music School, to discuss his dream.
They decided that the first discipline to be honored would be classical music composition. Incorporating elements from the Nobel Prize selection and other large grants, Mr. Grawemeyer and his foundation ultimately chose a more democratic process of judging the winners. They created a panel from three sources: the University of Louisville faculty, an international jury of music professionals and a group of non-professional music fans and listeners. The piece of new music would be no more than five years old, and the score and recording would be judged anonymously. The notion that a composer’s fame or notoriety would not influence the judges — only the music would do that — was vital to the process remaining as open as possible.
In 1985, the first award was presented to Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski for his “Symphony #3.”
Soon after, awards were created for Religion, World Order (Politics), Education and Psychology. Each year, the boldest work in these disciplines was honored. The winners would visit Louisville and teach, share and explore.
The musical composition awards received international acclaim and became a major center for new classical writing. The list of winners over the last two decades is an awe-inspiring collection of musicians from around the world: Pierre Boulez (France), Tan Dun (China), John Adams (United States), Krzysztof Penderecki (Poland), Joan Tower (United States) and György Ligeti (Hungary), to name a few. For many classical music enthusiasts, these artists are shining lights in 20th and 21st century work — always pushing past the boundaries of the art form. They include conductors, film composers, Grammy winners and teachers, all seeking new forms of expression.
At $200,000, the Grawemeyer Award in Music is currently the world’s largest financial prize for new work, and it brings a sense of hope to literally thousands of new artists and composers. The 2006 recipient, György Kurtág, is a wonderful example of the kind of talent this award can support. Born in Hungary in 1932, he has traveled the world, acting as composer-in-residence of the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Konzerthaus, as a student in Paris of such luminaries as Messiaen and Milhaud, and as a teacher. The piece for which he was honored, “Concertante Op. 24,” is a work full of mystery and power, of questions and vibrant, athletic musicality. Kurtág created solos for violinist Hiromi Kikuchi and violist Ken Hakii in the piece, furthering a mission of collaboration and dialogue between artists.
The 26-minute work took Kurtág seven years to create, and was premiered in September 2003 by the Danish Radio Orchestra. When he traveled to Louisville this spring, he presented a master class discussing the project to the U of L Music School. Kurtág and his wife Marta then celebrated the visit with a performance of a four-hand piano music.
The Grawemeyer Award is one of the world’s greatest resources for classical music, yet it frequently goes without the praise and the support it deserves. Local coverage is minimal, and people under 25 don’t seem to know it exists.
As we encounter difficult news about the funding for our beloved Louisville Orchestra and the arts in general, see new music series cut from the program budgets and a shrinking audience for classical music concerts in general, we should ask ourselves what role we can play. How do we keep this an energetic part of our culture here? Are we willing to go out and experience music that we may not “get” at first sitting?
Often considered difficult and inscrutable, new orchestra writing also gives us a thread, from the 18th century to the present, that can be immensely satisfying and emotionally rich. At its most basic level, new classical work reminds us that there is a place for totally noncommercial music, a place for exploration of what the composer György Ligeti called “adventures.”
As an ongoing celebration of new ideas and innovation, the Grawemeyer Awards reminds us what is possible. In its many facets, it asks us to look, consider and push ourselves. It’s a call for us to find and create something from our dreams, not only in our hometown, but reaching out to the world, eager for a new kind of dialogue.
The writer wishes to thank Rose Isetti for her contributions. Contact him at [email protected]