The Royal Philharmonic Awards

The Royal Philharmonic Awards
Award-winning sitarist Jasdeep Singh Degun, photo © Robin Clewley

A timely set of awards (the below courtesy of the Royal Philharmonic Society press release, slightly annotated), given that this very day (March 7), I travel to Cambridge to cover a concert by award-winner Jasdeep Singh Degun, to appear both here, and on Seen & Heard International. Here are the highlights:

  • The Royal Philharmonic Society Awards – ‘the biggest night in UK classical music’ (The Sunday Times) – have been presented this evening at the Royal Northern College of Music.
  • Staged in Manchester for the first time, the event featured live music from the city’s musicians and an award for the city’s major festival ‘Manchester Classical’.
  • Ukrainian composers Illia Razumeiko and Roman Grigoriv travelled from Ukraine to receive an award for their opera Chornobyldorf.
  • Jasdeep Singh Degun became the first sitar player ever to win an RPS Award.
  • Much in the news this year, the BBC Singers received an award.
  • Disabled musician Clare Johnston was awarded for a remarkable collaboration with Kazakhstani musicians.
  • A posthumous award was presented to the iconic composer Kaija Saariaho who died last year.
  • A special award was presented to the Irene Taylor Trust for its inspirational work using music to help people whose lives are impacted by the criminal justice system.

 At a time when classical music faces great challenges and funding cuts, the Royal Philharmonic Society Awards were announced this evening – Tuesday 5 March 2024 – at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, presenting a vital and uplifting picture of classical music’s resonance, impact and reach.  

Marking the first time that the Awards have been presented out of London, the event shone a light on Manchester's musical heritage and community, opening with a performance of Keiko Abe’s Conversations in a Forest from percussionists representing all of Manchester's professional classical ensembles. There were Manchester-based nominations for Olympias Music Foundation and LGBTQ+ choir The Sunday Boys, while Manchester Classical was presented with the Series and Events Award, having brought thousands of citizens to a weekend of events last Summer uniting the city’s classical artists. 

A major highlight was the presentation of the Opera and Music Theatre Award to Ukrainian composers Illia Razumeiko and Roman Grigoriv – who travelled specially from Ukraine for the event. It was presented for their opera Chornobyldorf, a powerful portrait of humanity’s need for cultural sustenance in the wake of shattering global events. Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival was applauded, having brought the whole Ukrainian cast and company of the opera to Yorkshire for its UK premiere.  

The coveted Gamechanger Award went to the Irene Taylor Trust and its inspirational Artistic Director Sara Lee for their life-changing work using music to help and empower people affected by the criminal justice system and in marginalised areas of society. Presenting the award, RPS Chairman John Gilhooly said ‘The Irene Taylor Trust is a tiny organisation with very small resource but the biggest of hearts. Politicians and policy-makers, pay heed: here is living proof of music helping society to heal. Here we see music as a gamechanger in itself.’ You can read the full citation here on the RPS website

Born and based in Leeds, Jasdeep Singh Degun became the first sitar player to win an RPS Award, in the Instrumentalist category. At the event, he performed his own work Veer with tabla player Harkiret Bahra and student string players from the Royal Northern College Music. Jasdeep was praised both for showing audiences the boundless possibilities of the sitar and his boundary-breaking collaborations, including the joyous Orpheus staged with Opera North. 

The Impact Award was presented to disabled musician Clare Johnston and Drake Music Scotland for Call of the Mountains, a remarkable collaboration with Kazakhstan’s Eegeru ensemble, which culminated in a collective performance in Edinburgh. The initiative was praised for crossing new frontiers and showcasing ways for marginalised artists to take the reins and lead the field. 

Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, an icon of contemporary music who died in 2023, was celebrated with the Large-Scale Composition Award for her acclaimed opera Innocence: a mesmerising portrait of lives forever changed by a high school shooting, staged by The Royal Opera. Her son, and the opera’s co-librettist, Aleksi Barrière collected the trophy in her name.  You can read my review of the Saariaho opera at Seen & Heard International here.

After a year in the headlines, the BBC Singers were recognised for the astonishing quality, style and imagination they have brought to a range of endeavours and collaborations, receiving the Ensemble Award. Star tenor Nicky Spence received the Singer Award for a phenomenal year including performances at the BBC Proms, Welsh National Opera, Classical Pride and Eurovision, and huge dedication to nurturing young talent at Blackheath Halls and Scottish Opera. Nicky and pianist Dylan Perez enchanted the audience at the event with a live performance of Noël Coward’s Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs Worthington. We have of course at Classical Explorer covered a number of Nicky Spence's releases , including Brahms Liebeslieder-Walzer on Resonus Classics, Barber Songs (also on Resonus), and in two Beethoven Ninths: at the Proms in 2023, and with the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Soiuthbank Centre in April 2022.

Nicky Spence at the RPS Awards, photo © Robin Clewley

Among the other winners, Derbyshire’s Derwent Brass received the Inspiration Award for non-professional groups, singularly chosen from a shortlist by the public who this year cast a total of 5,434 votes; François-Xavier Roth received the Conductor Award for his brilliant, imaginative work with the London Symphony Orchestra and his own ensemble Les Siècles; the Chamber-Scale Composition Award went to Laurence Osborn for his work TOMB! premiered by the GBSR Duo and 12 Ensemble at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival; the Storytelling Award went to Leah Broad for her revelatory book Quartet, telling the stories of four overlooked female composers the world should know better; and the Young Artist Award was presented to mezzo soprano Lotte Betts-Dean, praised as a visionary performer, initiating one bold collaboration after another. 

Conductor François-Xavier Roth, photo © Lee Isserow, Vessel Studios

We have of course met Roth a number of times on Classical Explorer: Bruckner's Third Symphony, Mahler's Fourth Symphony, and a live Proms performance of Ligeti and Mozart all spring to mind.

The RPS Awards were hosted by BBC Radio 3 presenters Elizabeth Alker and Linton Stephens, with trophies presented by RPS Chairman John Gilhooly who says ‘Too often this year, the story of classical music has been one of funding cuts and shrinking provision. Tonight we present a true picture of classical music’s quality, impact and radiance across the UK. This year’s RPS Awards winners are representative of music-makers nationwide, who – in challenging times – keep giving the very best of themselves for the benefit of others. We are proud to shine a light on their achievements, and hope it leads to greater recognition and pride for all that they collectively do.’ 

The RPS Awards unite many partners from the UK’s classical music community. The RPS is especially grateful to this year’s Principal Supporters – BBC Radio 3ABRSMLark MusicPRS for MusicYamaha, and BBC Music Magazine – and those who support individual awards as detailed below.  Longstanding Awards partner BBC Radio 3 will broadcast a special RPS Awards programme at 7:30pm on Wednesday 6 March, and available for a further month on BBC Sounds, giving audiences the opportunity to hear more music from this year’s winners. A film of the RPS Awards presentation will be freely available to watch for one month on the RPS website from Tuesday 12 March.    


PRINCIPAL SUPPORTERS  Notes to Editors2024 RPS AWARDS WINNERSA short citation, drawn from the RPS Awards script, is provided for each winner.

supported by Boosey & Hawkes in memory of Tony Fell for an outstandingly imaginative and engaging chamber-scale work receiving its premiere UK performance to a live or digital audience
Laurence Osborn – TOMB!
‘Laurence Osborn ignites traditional musical forms with new fire. TOMB! immerses the listener in a sound-world that defies expectation and shows a composer reaching new heights. GBSR Duo and 12 Ensemble joined forces for stand-out performances in Norwich, London and Cheltenham.’
Also nominated:
Ben Lunn – History needs…
Nilufar Habibian – Az nahāyate tāriki (From the deep end of darkness)
supported by Schott Music for the outstanding quality and scope of the performances to a live or digital audience, and the work in any context, of a conductor
François-Xavier Roth  
‘François-Xavier Roth is a modern-day musical Midas. With his touch, music leaps to life. In his adventures with the London Symphony Orchestra and his own brilliant ensemble Les Siècles, he stylishly unites modern and historical practice. He lights up the imagination of concertgoers and the many young performers and composers to whom he generously devotes his time.’
Also nominated:
Alice Farnham 
Alpesh Chauhan 
supported by Steinberg’s Dorico
for the outstanding quality and scope of the performances to a live or digital audience, and the work in any context of a group of musicians, no fewer than three
BBC Singers
‘Behold the astonishing quality, style and imagination that the BBC Singers have invested in a bright array of endeavours this year. Nothing could dim their brilliant and innovative associations with artists like sarod player Soumik Datta and cellist Abel Selaocoe, nor the depth and care of all their educational ventures. Here’s how to do it: whatever life casts your way, come out singing!’
Also nominated:
Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective 
Riot Ensemble 
supported by nkoda
specially presented by the RPS Board and Council to an initiative, individual or organisation for their inspirational and transformative work, breaking new ground in classical music
Sara Lee and the Irene Taylor Trust
‘The Irene Taylor Trust is a tiny organisation with very small resource but the biggest of hearts. It started in 1995 in Sara Lee’s front room and has bloomed thanks to her signature tenacity and optimism. The Trust not only leads creative projects in prisons, it’s having a powerful presence in communities, using music to fortify people who have found themselves cast to the fringes of society. The Trust isn’t the only organisation doing such work but they have been a trailblazer for almost 30 years, challenging themselves to do better and do more, always eager to partner with and encourage others to join the cause, and being a catalyst for good in the lives of literally thousands. Politicians and policy-makers, pay heed: here is living proof of music helping society to heal. Here we see music as a gamechanger in itself.’
supported by Oxford University Press Music 
for an outstanding initiative, individual or organisation that practically engaged and set out to have a lasting impact on the lives of people who may not otherwise experience classical music, demonstrating the positive, empowering role it can play in society
Call of the Mountains – Clare Johnston and Drake Music Scotland 
‘Drake Music Scotland and their Associate Composer Ben Lunn are renowned for empowering disabled musicians. Call of the Mountains – their collaboration with Clare Johnston – crosses new frontiers. Clare led a groundbreaking creative exchange with Kazakhstan’s Eegeru ensemble: digitally at first, then culminating in a triumphant collective performance in Edinburgh. From these pioneers, we could all learn ways for marginalised artists to take the reins and lead the field.’
Also nominated:
Re:Sound – Streetwise Opera 
Music in Secondary Schools Trust 
Olympias Music Foundation
supported by Presto Music
for a non-professional ensemble or an individual who works with such groups, in recognition of the remarkable constellation of such music-makers nationwide
Derwent Brass 
‘Derwent Brass is a beacon of innovative programming in the Midlands’ rich heritage of brass banding. Recently celebrating its 30th anniversary, the band is positively influencing others with its commitments to sustainability and diverse membership. Performing repertoire from Broadway to The Planets – and recently completing a 35-show run of Brassed Off at Derby Theatre – the group consistently innovates and entertains.’
Also nominated:
Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus 
The Sunday Boys 
supported by ISM, the Independent Society of Musicians 
for the outstanding quality and scope of the performances to a live or digital audience, and the work in any context, of an individual performer on any instrument
Jasdeep Singh Degun – sitar 
‘Jasdeep Singh Degun shows us all the beauty and boundless possibilities of the sitar. Rainbows of sound burst from his instrument in the dazzling collaborations of his debut album and his glorious re-telling of Orpheus with Opera North. He excels on so many remarkable levels, as a solo performer, team player, composer, director, and role-model.’
Also nominated:
Ayanna Witter-Johnson – cello 
Pavel Kolesnikov – piano 
supported by the Boltini Trust 
for an outstandingly imaginative and engaging large-scale work receiving its premiere UK performance to a live or digital audience
Kaija Saariaho – Innocence 
Innocence – the final opera by Kaija Saariaho – is a masterpiece by a composer at the height of her powers. The iridescent score reveals the complexity of human emotion in the aftermath of a tragic event. The multi-lingual libretto by Sofi Oksanen and Aleksi Barrière unfolds in sung and spoken lines, with the beautiful, haunting sound of a Finnish folk singer echoing long after the final notes are heard.’
Also nominated:
Cassandra Miller – I cannot love without trembling 
Jasdeep Singh Degun – Orpheus 
Noriko Koide – Swaddling Silk and Gossamer Rain 
supported by Wise Music Group
for an outstanding production or initiative, presented to a live or digital audience, or for the overall accomplishments of a company or individual in opera and music theatre
Chornobyldorf – Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival 
Chornobyldorf is a breathtaking portrait of humanity’s need for spiritual and cultural sustenance in the wake of shattering global events. It was co-composed and directed by Ukraine’s Illia Razumeiko and Roman Grygoriv before the Russian invasion. Bravo to Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival for bringing the whole Ukrainian cast and company of Opera Aperta to the UK during the conflict, to share their extraordinary creation.’
Also nominated:
Dialogues des Carmélites – Glyndebourne Opera
Innocence – The Royal Opera
supported by Warner Classics
for a distinctive festival, themed series of performances, or truly unique performance event, presented in the UK
Manchester Classical 
‘We all know music’s power to bring us together. This was stupendously evident as the classical organisations of this very city united for Manchester Classical. It was a marvellous weekend of the finest music-making, with affordable passes making the average concert less than £2 to attend. Mancunians came out in force to discover and take pride in the remarkable musical forces on their doorstep.’
Also nominated:
Aldeburgh Festival 
Oratorio of Hope – London Borough of Croydon 
Supported by Jenny Hodgson
for the outstanding quality and scope of the performances to a live or digital audience, and the work in any context, of an individual singer
Nicky Spence – tenor 
‘Who doesn’t want to come back in their next life as Nicky Spence? His phenomenal vocal talent combined with the immense care he brings to everything sets a benchmark for us all. His love for the whole classical community propels him from the BBC Proms and Welsh National Opera to nurturing young talent at Blackheath Halls and Scottish Opera. He's also never afraid to let loose, wowing new crowds at Classical Pride and Eurovision.’
Also nominated:
Alice Zawadzki – vocalist, songwriter 
Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha – soprano 
supported by Martin Randall Travel
for an imaginative entity which, in a lateral medium, newly or distinctly furthered the understanding of classical music (most likely but not limited to written or spoken word, radio, television, film, digital, online) 
Quartet – Leah Broad
‘In her immensely insightful and entertaining first book Quartet, Leah Broad weaves the stories of four composers the world should know better: Doreen Carwithen, Dorothy Howell, Ethel Smyth and Rebecca Clarke. She brings them to life with such sensitivity and nuance, changing our perceptions of their artistry and impact. Leah’s zeal has leapt off the page through a range of talks and concerts inspired by the book.’
Also nominated:
Composer of the Week – BBC Radio 3 
Eastern Classical – BBC Radio 4 
supported by Sir Simon and Victoria, Lady Robey CBE for the outstanding quality and scope of the performances to a live or digital audience, and the work in any context of an individual artist or chamber ensemble, relatively new to the profession
Lotte Betts-Dean – mezzo soprano
‘It’s impossible to cover all that mezzo soprano Lotte Betts-Dean has done this year. She’s a visionary performer, blazing through so much daring repertoire, and plunging into one bold collaboration after another. To other young artists who ask what the future holds, she lights up the sky, illuminating all the escapades and excitement a career can entail.’
Also nominated:
Aaron Azunda Akugbo – trumpet 
Ryan Corbett – accordion 

  ABOUT THE ROYAL PHILHARMONIC SOCIETY   For over 200 years, the Royal Philharmonic Society has been at the heart of music, creating opportunities for musicians to excel, championing the vital role that music plays in all our lives. It all began in 1813 when a group of musicians set out to establish a series of orchestral concerts in London. The Society’s regular performances attracted world-class artists including Mendelssohn and Wagner, and it commissioned exhilarating new music for an eager public to hear: most famously, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. In its founding gesture, the Society created a lasting culture. Other orchestras found their footing and their music resounds across Britain today.  200 years later, the Society continues to celebrate and empower musicians who – like its founders – strive to enrich society with all that they do. Through grants, commissions, coaching and performance opportunities, the RPS helps exciting young performers and composers find their voice. Through the renowned annual RPS Awards, the Society celebrates the quality, impact and ingenuity of the finest artists and creative forces at work today. Through its Membership, the RPS aims to cultivate national pride and curiosity in classical music, and rouse audiences to recognise the vital and valued role they play in the country's thriving musical heritage. Through all its endeavours, the RPS is dedicated to proving classical music’s rightful and powerful place in society.  @RoyalPhilSoc #RPSAwards on Twitter/X, Facebook and Instagram