The Azrieli Music Prizes at London's Cadogan Hall

The Azrieli Music Prizes at London's Cadogan Hall

Azrieli Prize Winners at Cadogan Hall: Habibi, Harlap, Ueda Jessika Kenney (vocalist); Pouyan Biglar (star); , Sharon Azrieli (sopranos); Naomi Sato (shō); Zhongxi Wu (suona / sheng); Georgia Mann (presenter); Philharmonia Orchestra / Steven Mercurio (conductor). Cadogan Hall, London, 16.10.2023 

Iman Habibi - Shāhīn-nāmeh (with Jessika Kenneyi and Pouyan Biglar)

Aharon Harlap - Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O Lord (with Sharon Azrieli)

Rita Ueda - Birds Calling ... from the Canada in you (with Naomi Sato & Zhongxi Wu)

This was the London debut of the Azrieli Music Prizes, and we heard music by three laureates of the 2022 competition. The prizes were established in 2014 by the Azrieli Foundation, offering "opportunities for the discovery, creation, performance and celebration of excellence in music composition" (their website). There are several available, broken down like this:

The Azrieli Prize for Jewish Music
 is awarded to a composer who has written the best new undiscovered work of Jewish music. Eligible works may have been premiered within seventy-five (75) years of the award date, but must not have a significant performance history, and must not have been commercially recorded.

The Azrieli Commission for Jewish Music is awarded to encourage composers to creatively and critically engage with the question “What is Jewish music?” This prize is given to the composer who proposes a response to this question in the shape of a musical work that displays the utmost creativity, artistry, technical mastery and professional expertise.

The Azrieli Commission for Canadian Music is offered to a Canadian composer to create a new musical work that creatively and critically engages with the complexities of composing concert music in Canada today. The prize is given to the composer who proposes a response to this challenge that displays the utmost creativity, artistry, technical mastery and professional expertise.

The Azrieli Commission for International Music invites composers worldwide to creatively engage with the richness of humanity’s diverse cultural heritage with the goal of fostering greater intercultural understanding through music. The Prize is awarded to the composer whose proposal displays the utmost artistry, technical mastery and professional expertise in response to the Prize theme.

The concert began with Iran Habibi's Shāhīn-Nāmeh, which uses texts from the Ardashir-nāmah by the Judeo-Persian poet Shahin Shirazi. It focuses on Queen Esther, linking it with characters from Ferdowski's Shahnameh (Book of Kings). The texts concern the saving of Jews from a genocide by Haman. The composer Iman Habibi taught himself how to read Judeo-Persian script in order to read the poetry then render it into usable form.

Habibi's piece is gestural and at times filmic in its scope. There is a cinematic sweep to some of the writing that might appeal to some; other passages are more improvised passages that move the listener towards Pesian music (which induces non-Western intervals). Soprano Jessika Kenney was remarkable as the soloist, compelling from the first. She was amplified, and I remain unsure why - it sounded like her voice was plenty powerful enough. It does appear to be asked for in the score, as this performance, with Sepideh Raissadat and the orchestre Métropolitaine under Alexandre Bloch, uses one too. You can hear the confidence of Habibi's writing here even more than in the Cadogan performance - Alexandre Bloch is a finer, and clearer, conductor than Steven Mercurio:

The piece is highly skilful in terms of orchestration, but I wonder if the music's depth mirrors the profundity of the texts it sets ...

Written in 2008, Aharon Harlap's Out of the Depths Have I Cried Unto Thee, O Lord sets six psalms over five movements (Nos. 130, Nos. 120 and 23 combined in the second movement, Psalm 121, Psalm 112, and Psalm 98). These six psalms dare the idea of a belief in a God whose strength can overcome adversity and offer protection to the petitioner(s). The psalms are sung in Hebrew.

Soprano Sharon Azrieli is a huge presence vocally, delivering the texts with 100% conviction. Of all three pieces performed this evening, Harlap's was by far the most assured, and the one that stands a chance of longevity. Dramatic orchestral gestures might be reminiscent of Harlap's piece, but they carry far more resonance here. An ascending gesture in the strings is like a cry from the heart (about 6"40 into the video below), while Harlap elsewhere sets up a deeply ritualistic feel that seems to connect to the depth of the listener's soul. This is absolutely gripping music, and the Philharmonia's performance carried somewhat more edge for Harlap.

Here is an alternative performance also with Sharon Azrieli, with the Orchestra Métropolitaine under Alexandre Bloch again. If you navigate instead to the YouTube video, texts are given below the video.

Finally, the immersive Birds Calling .. from the Canada in you by Rita Ueda, a 25-minute concerto for traditional Chinese and Japanese instruments with modern orchestra. Wikipedia links are provided for shō, sunna and sheng in the title above.

The piece is immersive as instrumentalists are distributed around the auditorium (in the balcony of the hall); the soloist are also mobile. Rita Ueda grew up in Canada and has always been fascinated by birdsong. And yet the famous musical references (Beethoven's ’Pastoral‘ Symphony, Respighi's Gli Ucelli and Messiaen's Oiseaux exotiques) did not satisfy Ueda. They did not include birdsong from Canada. As she puts it, her piece is a “uniquely Canadian musical bird call experience”.

The concept is interesting: a mass of bird calls becomes a “collective mass of sound” that dissolves until the remainder is one solo line that has been omnipresent, just unnoticed. The use of Oriental instruments reflects Canada's diversity. Both Asian and Western musical systems are utilised. The 17 bamboo pipes of the shõ (a descendent of the zheng) and the Chinese sunna (a double-reed instrument) offer a conversation between cultures. The suona has a history of incorporating birdsong (players are trained by having them listen to and imitate birdsong). The shõ represents the phoenix (and, in gagaku, the instrument represents the space between Heaven and Earth, where birds fly).

Breath sounds create elusive atmospheres; keening strings contrast with the harsh sound of the suona, a Chinese double-reed horn with an arresting, aw, almost primal sound.

There is a real sense of theatre around this piece. When the two soloists duet at a distance and are silenced by a simulated gunshot (we were warned), the effect is potent.

Ueda's piece is effective but needs an extra stratum of depth to succeed fully.

Photo © Chris O'Donovan

Here is a performance of Ueda's piece with the same soloists as in London; the Orchestra Métropolitain again under Alexandre Bloch:

An interesting evening, well-presented if not entirely satisfying musically. It is Aharon Harlap whose progress I shall be following.