The Column: Is the Birgit Nilsson Prize $1 Million Well Spent on the Vienna Phil?

By James Inverne on Apr 12, 2014 04:24 PM EDT

What is the Birgit Nilsson Prize for? There was some surprise when its first iteration -- and we're talking $1,000,000, opera and vocal music's most valuable award by far -- went to the hardly-impoverished Plácido Domingo. But on the other hand, Nilsson always supported the tenor and seems to have taken great pride in his rise, and for his part Domingo immediately declared that he would use the money to himself support young singers, so that was alright. Riccardo Muti came next, and now the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Most big prizes in classical music go to young talents who need the money. So, again, what is the prize for?

The prize's website says that the award exists to "pay tribute to artists who have achieved and sustained the highest performance standards" and also "to sustain the motivation of young artists...". Notice the emphasis -- the "motivation" of young artists. It's not about paying for a young artist to be able to afford that special instrument or some recordings, it's about rewarding artists at the pinnacle of the art form, as much as anything as an inspiration to those who might follow them and at a time when the pursuit of great art is not in itself always the first motivating factor.

OK, so a few points. There are inherent problems in the industry and actually in our society that impede the single-minded struggle to serve the form at the highest possible level.  But rarely is an artist ever -- ever -- in my experience content with anything less than the best that they can give, and often they are not satisfied with even that. In other words the problems are systematic, they're not generally in the mindsets of 'these young folk today'. In which case lobbing a million pounds at one of the great and good may not in itself make much difference. Neither Domingo nor Muti need to be given any kind of award for young musicians to know they're great and wish to emulate them.

On the other hand, one of the stipulations of the award is that the recipient should be someone who does actively encourage new performers. We don't yet know how the VPO will spend the money, but pretty much every orchestra these days sees finding ways to reach the new generations as part of its mission. It should be remembered too that orchestras generally need all the money they can get for what is a very expensive business, so not true to say that they couldn't put it to good use.

But what I do feel strongly is this - I have no problem with the prize and the attendant small fortune going to an established artist or orchestra. But it should be given with the explicit stipulation that it must be used in the service of new artists or reaching new audiences (something that arguably helps all artists). In many ways, established institutions and artists have the infrastructure to make big things happen. Even to start to change societies. And if that happens, Birgit Nilsson's memory will be appropriately honored and her money will have been well spent.

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TagsBIrgit Nilsson Prize, Placido Domingo, Riccardo Muti, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

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