George Benjamin, Frontiers of Knowledge Award for Modernizing Opera

A great innovator of operatic language wins this year the XVI BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the Music and Opera category.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
03 April 2024 Wednesday 16:31
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George Benjamin, Frontiers of Knowledge Award for Modernizing Opera

A great innovator of operatic language wins this year the XVI BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the Music and Opera category. The composer, conductor and professor at King's College London Sir George Benjamin has impressed the jury of this award endowed with 400,000 euros for “his extraordinary contribution and his impact on contemporary creation in the fields of symphonic music, opera and chamber music.” The award ceremony that was awarded in Bilbao highlights that Benjamin has managed to "modernize the operatic language, proposing new narrative structures and maintaining an emotional dramaturgy that connects and moves the public of the 21st century."

The author of Written on Skin or Lessons in Love and Violence, to mention two titles that have premiered at the Liceu and the Teatro Real, has a "very personal and recognizable" musical language and is "capable of communicating with the public in a direct, without giving up a rigorous and detailed workmanship in all compositional aspects".

The secretary of the jury, Víctor García de Gomar, artistic director of the Liceu, adds that it is "probably the most representative name of contemporary music, which is still in a very important creative moment; each new title that it presents in its catalog is awaited by the world, especially in operas: every four or five years he is writing a new opera, and with this cadence and its enormous quality, he manages to generate this expectation."

The winner spoke to this newspaper from the French countryside and said he was "moved" to be considered deserving of "such an award." "The fact that it comes from Spain means a lot to me because I am a big fan of the musical culture in Spain and what has happened in this country in the last 40 years in terms of classical music."

Benjamin is now in an interpretive period, about to collaborate as a conductor with the Gulbenkian Orchestra in Lisbon and traveling more than ever with new projects. This summer he premieres in Aix-en-provence his fourth collaboration with Martin Crimp as a librettist: Picture a day like this, an initiatory fable of subtle and changing atmospheres that follows a young woman's search to prove that happiness exists.

"No, I don't compose in these periods, because composition literally kidnaps me for at least two years. In this period I only have the piece in my head, sometimes even while I sleep. It is a very solitary way of living, but then I work with musicians from all over the world. Now with the Mahler Chamber and also with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. It is a wonderful contrast: while composing, finding the solution for a small part of the piece can take me seven weeks, while conducting I make decisions in microseconds ".

His passion for the classic came from watching a musical film by Walt Disney, Fantasia (1940). Listening to Beethoven, Stravinsky and Mussogrsky there was a shock. And not only did I become intolerant of any other music, but almost everything else in the world. That music seemed to me much more beautiful, wonderful, exciting and profound than anything I had known until then," says the award-winner.

"It is true that I am from a visual generation and that visual stimuli external to music can often help me create structures, atmospheres and moods," he adds. "I am open to cinema, photography and painting, but in the end it is "The music itself, the rhythm, the lines, the harmony, the form... what excites me and the rest is secondary. What I really love is playing the materials of music."

A transformative moment of his youth was meeting Olivier Messiaen at an audition in 1976. "It's been more than 30 years since he left us, but I still miss him. And I learned a lot from him, in terms of technique and as an artist's model, but also his way of living and loving music; it was contagious. I have distanced myself a lot from his world now, which is absolutely right, and is what he would want as a teacher. But his impact on me and what I owe him is indescribable. And the admiration was mutual, since Messiaen, who became his teacher at the Paris Conservatory, considered him "the Mozart of his time."

Already in 1980, his orchestral piece Ringed by the Flat Horizon was performed at the London Proms by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. At 20 years old he was the youngest composer to be programmed at this festival. Two years later, Sir Simon Rattle premiered At First Light (1982) with the London Sinfonietta.

It was Pierre Boulez who, while studying Benjamin at IRCAM, introduced him to the most avant-garde creation in terms of technology and unusual instruments. And curiously, his great contribution to opera was long in coming. He did not find the necessary collaborator, that Da Ponte that Mozart had. "Because I was not going to be able to do like Wagner and a few others, which is to write the text and the music. I needed to find that person with whom the chemistry would be established," he explains on the other end of the telephone line.

Curiously, one of the first attempts occurred while in Spain. "Thanks to my great friend and defender Josep Pons, who invited me to conduct the Teatre Lliure Orchestra, I was able to meet fifteen people. It was 1990 or '91. I was looking for a collaborator to do opera and I did some interviews. And one of "They went with Arthur Miller! He was very interested in collaborating and I remember a headline in La Vanguardia saying that we would do something together. But it didn't happen." "Why? Maybe he was older and I was only 30 years old. And it probably didn't work with anyone because I wasn't ready to collaborate yet. Now I realize. I had to develop myself more."

The miracle occurred when, at the age of 45, he met Martin Crimp. There appeared the essential thing between author and composer, which "is to create tension." "Part of the chemistry with Martin is that we are not the same, we share details and a fascination with structure and telling stories, he loves music and would have been a great pianist, and he is able to give me concise structures, interesting characters. .. and it challenges me in many ways, both aesthetically and structurally... it's like playing tennis. We create a very valuable tension. I consider myself very lucky because I am a very perfectionist, I am difficult, both for myself and for others." .

In this edition, 42 nominations were received. The winner was nominated by Santiago Serrate, orchestra director and professor at the Barcelona Conservatory and the Reina Sofía School. The jury for this category was chaired by Gabriela Ortiz Torres, composer and professor of Composition at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (Mexico); and in addition to Víctor García de Gomar as secretary, it has had the members Mauro Bucarelli, Silvia Colasanti, Raquel García-Tomás, Pedro Halffter Caro and Joan Matabosch.

The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards, endowed with 400,000 euros in each of its eight categories, recognize and encourage contributions of singular impact in science, technology, the humanities and music, especially those that significantly expand the scope of knowledge. known in a discipline, they make new fields emerge or build bridges between various disciplinary areas.