Concierto extraordinario de los XVI Premios Fronteras del Conocimiento

The gala concert celebrating the 16th BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards features the Spanish premiere of ‘Concerto for Orchestra’ by music laureate George Benjamin

On June 19 at 19:30, the Euskalduna Bilbao auditorium played host to the gala concert in honor of laureates in the 16th BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards, a prelude to the formal presentation ceremony in the same venue on June 20, also at 19:30. The musical evening was chaired by the President of the BBVA Foundation, Carlos Torres Vila. Also present were the Mayor of Bilbao, Juan Mari Aburto, and the Director of the BBVA Foundation, Rafael Pardo.

19 June, 2024

The 16th Frontiers Awards have found their way to mathematicians Yakov Eliashberg and Claire Voisin in Basic Sciences; Ulrich Hartl, Arthur Horwich, Kazutoshi Mori and Peter Walter in Biology and Biomedicine; Takeo Kanade in Information and Communication Technologies; Gerardo Ceballos and Rodolfo Dirzo in Ecology and Conservation Biology; Dorthe Dahl-Jensen, Jean Jouzel, Valérie Masson-Delmotte, Jakob Schwander and Thomas Stocker in Climate Change; Partha Dasgupta in Economics, Finance and Management; Elke Weber in Humanities and Social Sciences; and British composer George Benjamin, in Music and Opera.

The Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid, under the baton of conductor Santiago Serrate, offered a program opening with the first ever performance in Spain of George Benjamin’s Concerto for Orchestra, followed by Dance Figures by the same author, and continuing with The Firebird Suite by Igor Stravinsky and Prelude and Liebestod from Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde.

Concerto for Orchestra is the penultimate work by the Music and Opera laureate in this 16th edition, written in memory of the late composer Oliver Knussen, with whom he had been close since the age of 18. In it, Benjamin “attempts to conjure a trace of the energy, humor, and spirit I associate with my friend.” Its mood, he continues, “is often playful, though on occasion it twists into much more turbulent terrain.” The music snakes through a variety of instrumental inventions that interact and superimpose, as the composer describes it: “Long, suspended lines weave a path through contrasting textures, some rapid and skittish, others more dynamic and propulsive. All of the instruments play multiple roles – both dramatic and sonoric – across the structure, among them a volatile solo tuba, elaborate horn duos, bubbling clarinets and two pairs of rumbling timpani. Most prominent of all are the impassioned first violins, who almost have the last word during the work’s tranquil conclusion.”

The next item on the program, Dance Figures, was Benjamin’s first piece conceived for dance, though it had its debut outing in the concert version performed before the Frontiers public. The work was written to be choreographed by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, a leading figure in the contemporary dance world, and comprises nine short movements with a single break that contrast sharply in character, form and instrumental color.

Exoticism, power and passion are the defining traits of The Firebird Suite, performed in the version scored by Igor Stravinsky in the Swiss town of Morges, a meeting place for musicians like conductor Ernest Ansermet, who would shortly premiere the work. George Benjamin – hailed by the Frontiers Awards committee for his “highly personal and distinctive musical language” – has said similar things of Stravinsky, notably that he possesses “an utterly distinctive and unique sound and instrumental universe unrelated to any other score, of his own or others.”

Prelude and Liebestod comprises the opening and closing music of Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. In a letter to his father-in-law Franz Liszt, the German composer had this to say about the purpose of the work, musically and expressively distilled in its first and last passages: “Since I have never enjoyed in life the true happiness of love, I shall erect a monument to this most beautiful of all dreams, in which from beginning to end this love shall for once be completely fulfilled.”

Connecting with the audience while maintaining a meticulous musical craftsmanship

Composer and conductor George Benjamin received the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Music and Opera for “his extraordinary contribution and impact in contemporary creation in the realms of symphonic music, opera and chamber music.” His four acclaimed operas, written with playwright Martin Crimp, “propose new narrative structures and maintain a dramaturgy that connects with and moves the public of the 21st century,” in the words of the award citation. A star pupil of Olivier Messiaen’s, who saw in him a talent “similar to that of a young Mozart,” Benjamin was the youngest ever composer to have a work performed at the BBC Proms in London, and his music has been presented by the world’s foremost orchestras and music institutions. “Opera can create a deep resonance to things that are right now important to our world. We face such big challenges at the moment, it’s almost terrifying, but music can speak to the heart of the people like nothing else can,” the Frontiers laureate reflects. “What leads me while composing is to write something that might stay with people and open up an area of thinking and feeling that is meaningful and new.”

Benjamin – again in the words of the committee – manages to “communicate directly with the public, without forgoing a rigorous, fine-grained workmanship in all aspects of composition, with particular regard to his mastery of orchestration and tone color, and exquisite formal architecture.”

In his work for chorus and orchestra Dream of the Song, Benjamin’s writing shows the influence of Spanish culture. “In that piece there’s not only text by Federico García Lorca – whose home I visited in Granada the first time and whose piano I played –, there are also texts set to Hebrew poetry of the 11th century from Andalusia, a secular poetry of extraordinary modernity and beauty.” The composer admits to feeling a deep connection to Spain. “I love the country and have been many times, to many different regions. My first professional experience was in Barcelona, where someone who has remained a dear friend and loyal supporter of my music, Josep Pons (currently Music Director of the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona), invited me to conduct the Teatre Lliure Chamber Orchestra. He also invited me to conduct the City of Granada Orchestra, which gave me the thrill of seeing what is perhaps the most beautiful place in Europe, the Alhambra. I’ve been two or three times since and it remains for me an absolute jewel in the crown of our continent.”

George Benjamin

Benjamin began writing music at the age of seven. In 1976 he entered the Paris Conservatoire to study with Olivier Messiaen, then went on to complete his training with Alexander Goehr at King’s College, Cambridge. Aged 20, while still a student, a performance of his Ringed by the Flat Horizon at the London Proms in August 1980 made him the youngest living composer to have a piece played during the celebrated music season. In 1987, before reaching 30, he received a commission from the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) to write a work, Antara, for the tenth anniversary of the Pompidou Centre, and in 1995 he composed Three Inventions for Chamber Orchestra to commemorate the 75th edition of the Salzburg Festival. His works have been premiered by conductors of the stature of Simon Rattle or Pierre Boulez (At First Light and Palimpsests respectively) .

He has composed over 30 works: four operas – the first, Into the Little Hill, a commission from the Festival d’Automne in Paris –, six orchestral pieces and four for soloist and orchestra, as well as scores for chamber orchestra and ensemble, instrumental and chamber music, and electronics. Concert halls around the world have programmed cycles of his work, among them Opera Bastille in Paris, Tokyo Opera City, the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation and Orquesta y Coro Nacionales de España. As a conductor, his repertoire runs from Mozart and Schumann to Knussen and Abrahamsen, and among the many works he has premiered are scores by Wolfgang Rihm, Unsuk Chin, Gérard Grisey and György Ligeti. Since 2001 he has been the Henry Purcell Professor of Composition at King’s College London.

Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid

Founded in 1903, the Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid (OSM) was led for three decades by conductor Enrique Fernández Arbós, in which time the podium was occupied by renowned guest conductors such as Richard Strauss and Igor Stravinsky. In the 1980s, the orchestra became the permanent ensemble for all productions at the Teatro de la Zarzuela, as well as embarking on an annual concert season at the Auditorio Nacional de Música, which continues to this day. Since 1997, it has performed as Resident Orchestra at the Teatro Real under the musical directorships of Luis Antonio García Navarro, Jesús López Cobos and, currently, Ivor Bolton, with Pablo Heras-Casado and Nicola Luisotti as Principal Guest Conductors. The Teatro Real was named world’s best opera theater of 2019 at the International Opera Awards, with the OSM as its Resident Orchestra.

The orchestra’s recorded output features a selection of Spanish operas and zarzuelas for music label Auvidis; the complete Mendelssohn symphonies, under conductor Peter Maag, for Arts; and the first ever recordings of Isaac Albéniz’s Merlin and Henry Clifford, for Decca, conducted by José de Eusebio. Many of its Teatro Real performances are currently available on record and DVD.

Santiago Serrate

Santiago Serrate’s conducting schedule has taken him to such noted venues as the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, Teatro Real and Teatro de la Zarzuela in Madrid, the Òpera a Catalunya circuit, Palau de Les Arts in Valencia, Teatro de la Maestranza in Seville, Theater Chemnitz (Germany), and a series of appearances with the Ballet de l’Opéra de Lyon (France). He has led the Spanish premieres of Janáček’s Šárka, Dallapiccola’s Il prigioniero, and the revival of Cristoforo Colombo by Ramón Carnicer. Serrate also gave the world premiere of Tomás Marco’s opera Tenorio in concert and recorded version, with the aid of a Leonardo Grant from the BBVA Foundation, and in May 2024 conducted its full stage premiere in Madrid’s Teatro Real. He led the debut performance of Jorge Muñiz’s opera Fuenteovejuna for Ópera de Oviedo, staged more recently for Ópera de Tenerife.

Overall, he has more than one hundred and twenty world and forty Spanish premieres to his name, and his operatic repertoire encompasses over seventy titles. Professor of Vocal Ensemble of the Fundación Ramón Areces “Alfredo Kraus” Voice Chair and instrument sponsor at the Escuela Superior de Música Reina Sofía, Professor in the Liceu Higher Conservatory of Music in Barcelona and a mentor on the “Generación Talento” program of the Fundación Princesa de Girona, Santiago Serrate is also the director of the BBVA Foundation Music Season 2023-2024.