A 30-minute song cycle for soprano and orchestra called let me tell you, by Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen, has been named the winner of the 2016 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition. The prize, which includes $100,000, was slated to be announced Nov. 30 by the University of Louisville, which sponsors the annual award. But the after the classical music website Musical America accidentally leaked the information, the official statement was released Tuesday.
Abrahamsen, 62, collaborated with author and music critic Paul Griffiths, who wrote the texts for the piece based on his own short novel called let me tell you. Griffiths started with the 480 or so words allotted to the character Ophelia in Shakespeare's Hamlet, then reworked them in various combinations to reveal a contemporary Ophelia eager to tell her own story. "My words may be poor but they will have to do," she says near the beginning of the work.
"The vocal lines exquisitely mirror Griffiths' fragile texts of the doomed Ophelia," said Mark Satterwhite, director of the Grawemeyer Award. "The orchestra is a partner rather than mere accompanist and the composer draws a huge array of colors from the orchestra, delicate and shimmering more often than not, but occasionally in fuller force."
Abrahamsen, a native of Copenhagen, began writing music at an early age, publishing pieces when he was 16. By age 30 he already had an orchestral work commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic. He studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Music, where he now teaches. Among his teachers were Per Nørgård and György Ligeti (a Grawemeyer winner in 1986).
Abrahamsen dabbled with writing vocal music back in the 1970s, but says that let me tell you is his first vocal piece, and something of a breakthrough for him.
"My music has always been full of pictures and feelings," he said by phone from his home in Kongens Lyngby, near Copenhagen. "But now these pictures come out more with text and therefore somehow there has been some kind of step [forward] in this piece, which I understood when I wrote it."
One of the keys to the success of let me tell you is soprano Barbara Hannigan, for whom it was written. A fearless champion of new music, Hannigan has premiered some 80 pieces and was recently praised for her performances in Written on Skin, an opera by George Benjamin that received its U.S. stage premiere at this summer's Mostly Mozart Festival in New York. At one point in the conception of let me tell you, she gave Abrahamsen a crash course on the history of vocal music, singing for him excerpts of Mozart, Mahler and Schoenberg, and instructing him in the finer points of her silvery, flexible voice.
It was also Hannigan who asked the Berlin Philharmonic if they wanted to commission the work. That orchestra, led by Andris Nelsons, gave the piece its world premiere Dec. 20, 2013.
For Abrahamsen, winning the award is a dream come true. "I remember the first time I heard about the award and heard that Lutosławski and Ligeti and others who won," he says. "I knew it was, and still is, a very prestigious prize. So when I heard that I had received it, I became very honored and very happy."
The piece will be heard first in the U.S. in performances by Hannigan, the Cleveland Orchestra and music director Franz Welser-Möst in Cleveland and New York in January. A recording will be released Jan. 8 on the Winter & Winter label, and Boston Symphony Orchestra performances with Hannigan and Nelsons follow in February.
"I have the feeling that in this piece I have made something which is perhaps more open but still full of mystery, and, for me, what I'm searching for," Abrahamsen says. "When I did the piece I felt everything came into its right place."
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