For once, I had this Opener figured out days in advance, thanks to a snippet of news that came my way relating to Estonian Music Week, which kicks off May 24 and will offer concerts and workshops in a bunch of different musical genres and eight different Toronto venues, from Lee’s Palace to Koerner Hall, all timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Estonia’s independence. But that’s May’s news. The detail that caught my eye right now, and much more in keeping with this month’s topic, was an initiative to the tune of around two million Canadian dollars, titled “An Instrument for Every Child,” designed to put a musical instrument in the hands of every Estonian child who wants to play one, with no limitations in terms of musical styles.
But just a couple of hours before going to press with this issue of TheWholeNote, word came through to us from the Glenn Gould Foundation, of the death of Venezuelan visionary educator, Dr. José Antonio Abreu, founder of El Sistema, a transformative program of intensive free music education and orchestral training, starting in early childhood. “Abreu was a visionary figure, who recognized the power of music to transform the lives of children suffering the ravages of poverty and the host of social ills that goes with it” reads the statement posted on the Glenn Gould Foundation website. “From that realization, and by sheer force of will, he built the movement that came to be known as El Sistema, beginning with a mere 11 young people in 1975, but ultimately [spreading] to more than 25 countries worldwide, adapting and accommodating itself to the social and economic context of each.”
I’d already been planning, cleverly, to link this new Estonian initiative to the topic of Abreu, El Sistema and the GGF because April is, as it happens, announcement time for the Glenn Gould Prize for the arts. This year’s distinguished jury is heading to town shortly (unless of course they already live here) and, on April 13 at 12:30pm in the galleria at Koerner Hall the jury will announce this year’s prize winner, following which, as surely as pigeons have wings, feathers will ruffle and/or fly in all directions. After dust and dander settle, the public, and the jury, can take in an astounding 8pm Koerner concert by a likely future winner of this and/or many other prizes, 13-year old British composer, pianist, violinist and improviser Alma Deutscher.
A bit of history: The Glenn Gould Prize started out in 1987 as a strictly musical one, awarded every three years; R. Murray Schafer was its first recipient; then Yehudi Menuhin in 1990, Oscar Peterson in 1993, and Toru Takemitsu, Yo-Yo Ma, Pierre Boulez and André Previn, in 1996, 1999, 2002 and 2005 respectively. Abreu was the 2008 honoree, followed by Leonard Cohen in 2011, Robert Lepage in 2013 and Philip Glass in 2015.
Somewhere along the way, I think either just before or just after the award to Leonard Cohen, it was announced that henceforth the prize would be known as the Glenn Gould Prize for the arts, rather than strictly for music. And around the same time as the change to “Prize for the Arts” was announced, it was also announced that the Prize would be awarded every two years instead of every three.
One more little piece of history: since 1993, the year Oscar Peterson won, there has been a second award, called the City of Toronto Protégé Prize, awarded to some person, or in one case organization, of the Laureate’s own choosing, generally announced at the prize-giving ceremony sometime during the year after the announcement of the main award. Abreu selected Gustavo Dudamel as protégé in his year. Yo-Yo Ma selected a true protégé, future fellow Silk Road Project core company member, pipa player Wu Man for his. She remains to this point the only woman among the 20 honorees to date.
Growing up: Of all the laureates so far, Abreu was for me the one that best reflected what prizes like this should really be for, and the direction that I hope this year’s jury will take in their deliberations. I understand why for the first couple of decades of its existence a prize like this is as much intent on building its own pedigree via the credentials of its chosen laureates as the other way round. The Prize had to prove its importance by choosing widely know laureates, who then, usually, return the favour by the graciousness and alacrity with which they acknowledge the importance of the award.
But how much better when the Prize is bestowed on someone of towering importance to art and life whom we don’t already know. Abreu was one such person for me; I will always be grateful that the Prize brought his life-changing work to my attention. Going further, it is highly unlikely that El Sistema would have found fertile soil in Toronto and elsewhere in Canada were it not for the prominence given the movement here in 2008.
The April 13 announcement will take the Prize to a whole new level if it brings into the limelight a person (of any gender) who stands to benefit more from having their work brought into focus by the Prize, than the Prize merely basking in the laureate’s reflected glory. Now that would truly be a feather in the Glenn Gould Foundation cap.
As for the matter of the gender of the laureates, it’s an issue that gets thornier with every passing cycle. Each time a man is chosen, the cumulative imbalance becomes more improbable. Just as problematic, though, in my view, will be the backlash as and when this changes – the huffing and puffing of small-hearted people who will immediately assume that this award, unlike the other 19, was gender-based. So, to the jury, good luck. To those who are waiting to question the jury’s integrity, look into your own hearts. To José Antonio Abreu, you will not be forgotten.