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BBVA Foundation Names Frontiers of Knowledge Award Winner

Composer Sir George Benjamin has won the award in the music and opera category alongside a €400,000 cash prize

 

The BBVA Foundation promotes world-class scientific research, cultural creation, and the recognition of talent. Since 2008, its annual Frontiers of Knowledge Awards has recognized pioneers across eight categories.

English composer Sir George Benjamin was selected as this year’s winner for “modernizing the operatic language,” “rigorous and fine-grained workmanship in all aspects of composition,” and for “his extraordinary contribution and impact in contemporary creation in the realms of symphonic music, opera and chamber music,” relates the award committee. 

A star pupil of Olivier Messiaen, Benjamin was the youngest composer to have a work performed at London’s BBC Proms. His symphonic and chamber music has since been presented by world-leading orchestras and music institutions. 

Notably, his four internationally acclaimed operas written with playwright Martin CrimpInto the Little Hill (2006), Written on Skin (2009-12), Lessons in Love and Violence (2015-17) and Picture a day like this (2023) — “propose new narrative structures and present an emotional dramaturgy that connects with and moves the public of the 21st century,” reads the award citation. 

“The opera house is where I have had my most precious experiences,” Benjamin said in the press release. “I find myself losing the concept of time and place, and feel entirely united with what’s happening in the music. And that’s what I’m trying to do with my works, which, hopefully, for some people, will envelop and transform them.”

 

Born in London into a musical family, Benjamin developed a keen passion for music by listening to mid-1960s pop music, and after watching Walt Disney’s 1940 film, Fantasia (1940), of which the score included the music of Bach, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, and Schubert, greatly influenced Benjamin. 

“In one day I was transfixed and converted, almost like a religious conversion, and not only became intolerant of any other music, but of almost anything else in the world,” he said in an interview shortly after winning the award. “It seemed to me so much more beautiful, wonderful, exciting and profound than anything I knew. So I became a musical fanatic, I’m afraid. As children can be. And I’m not so sure it’s a mistake.”

In his early years, Benjamin received private composition and piano classes in London, and from the early 1970s enjoyed the mentorship of Peter Gellhorn, who took him to an audition with Messiaen. 

Studying with Messiaen over the next four years at the Paris Conservatoire, his breakthrough came when his work Ringed by the Flat Horizon (1980) was performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under conductor Sir Mark Elder at the BBC Proms; he is still the youngest composer to feature in the festival program.

Two years later, while studying with Alexander Goehr at King’s College Cambridge, the world premiere of his chamber piece At First Light (1982) was performed by the London Sinfonietta and Sir Simon Rattle. Benjamin also attended the IRCAM music institute — founded and at the time led by Pierre Boulez.

Also a conductor, Benjamin has premiered scores by Wolfgang Rihm, Unsuk Chin, Gérard Grisey, and György Ligeti. Since 2001 he has held the Henry Purcell Professorship of Composition at King’s College London.

 

A total of 42 nominations were received for the 2024 Frontiers of Knowledge Awards. Benjamin was nominated by Santiago Serrate, Alfredo Kraus-Fundación Ramón Areces, and Sam Wigglesworth.

“We are probably talking about the most important name in contemporary music. And he is still a formidable creative force,” said committee secretary Víctor García de Gomar, Artistic Director of the Gran Teatre del Liceu. “Every new addition to his catalog is eagerly awaited, especially in the world of opera: he writes a new one every four or five years, and with that rhythm of output and the quality of his work, expectations are always high.”

“The rightness of the award going to Benjamin, because he is one of the greats and could go down in music history for any one of his works, whether opera, symphonic or chamber music,” added conductor Josep Pons. “He is not just a number one musically, he is also a great human being, with a moral compass that brooks no concessions.”

Chaired by Gabriela Ortiz Torres and with García de Gomar, as secretary, the Music and Opera committee comprised Mauro Bucarelli, Silvia Colasanti, Raquel García-Tomás, Pedro Halffter Caro, and Joan Matabosch.

The evaluation support panel was coordinated by Luis Calvo Calvo, and formed by María Gembero Ustárroz, Mariano Gómez Aranda, David Irving, and Andrea Puentes Blanco.

A BBVA Foundation interview with Benjamin can be viewed below.

 

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