National Column: Glenn Gould Prize expansion a ‘Nobel’ cause

by Paul Wells

What do you do when you run one of the world’s leading prizes for the arts and it still isn’t getting as much attention as it could? You make it bigger.

On Tuesday in Ottawa, the Glenn Gould Foundation will announce that a gala concert will take place at the National Arts Centre on Nov. 26 to celebrate the American composer Philip Glass. Last year, Glass became the 11th winner of the Glenn Gould Prize, which is awarded every two years to an arts figure from anywhere in the world for “a unique lifetime contribution that has enriched the human condition through the arts.”

But the foundation is getting ready to upstage its own concert announcement with the unveiling of much bigger plans for the future. Starting in 2017, the year of Canada’s 150th birthday celebration, the foundation plans to bestow three distinctive Glenn Gould Prizes at a time.

One prize in each two-year cycle would be for Artistic Excellence, a second for Creative Innovation in the arts and a third for Cultural Humanitarianism.

Tripling the number of awards would help the Glenn Gould Prize meet its potential – “to become the world’s preeminent arts prize,” Brian Levine, the foundation’s executive director, told the Star.

Such ambition doesn’t come free. The Gould Foundation is also launching an ambitious drive to endow the expanded awards indefinitely. Private donors and governments would, the foundation devoutly hopes, contribute. And it’s no coincidence that Tuesday’s announcement will take place in Ottawa.

“We are seeking significant support from the Government of Canada in the form of a one-time
endowment grant,” Levine said, “with a commitment on the Foundation’s part to secure matching funds.”

The federal government is aware of the request but has made no commitment, Levine said. The
foundation is cagey about the scale of the request, but it is certainly in the millions of dollars.

Named for the legendary Toronto-born pianist whose unique style and definitive recordings of the baroque and classical repertoire made him one of the most famous Canadians of the 20th century, the Gould prize is sometimes called “the Nobel Prize of the arts.”

Unfortunately, it is most often called that by the Glenn Gould Foundation, or by Canadian reporters writing every two years about the latest recipient. Global recognition of Glenn Gould remains huge; global recognition of the prize named after him lags a bit. To bolster the case for an expanded awards program, the foundation has collected letters from world-leading artists endorsing the project. “It gives me great pleasure to write in support,” cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the prize’s 1999 laureate, wrote. “I am truly excited,” director Atom Egoyan, a former jury member, wrote.

The prize’s past laureates include jazzman Oscar Peterson, French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, bard Leonard Cohen and theatre innovator Robert Lepage. There is no requirement that winners be Canadian. International juries have often wound up naming a Canadian. Some years the winner has been a bit of a hard sell from a marketing perspective: composers R. Murray Schafer and Toru Takemitsu, deeply worthy for the scale of their artistic contributions, are not exactly household names.

Tripling the prize could more than triple its impact. With three laureates at a time, each designating a young and rising recipient of city of Toronto “protege prizes,” there would be material for a high-profile gala performance to spread the word about the laureates, their work and Canada. “We believe this is a unique opportunity for Canada,” Levine said, “since Glenn Gould’s name and prestige resonate so powerfully around the world.”

In its promotional material, the foundation suggests which of its past laureates represent the values celebrated in the three new categories.

Jose Antonio Abreu, who created Venezuela’s influential El Sistema music-education program, would have been a good winner for Cultural Humanitarianism. For Artistic Excellence, Oscar Peterson and Yo-Yo Ma.

For Creative Innovation, Robert Lepage.

Discussing the expanded prize program with Levine, I couldn’t resist imagining my own winners in each category.

Maybe architect Frank Gehry, or Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the Broadway hit Hamilton, in the innovation category? Global jazz ambassador Wynton Marsalis for humanitarianism? British conductor John Eliot Gardiner, the greatest Bach interpreter since Gould, for excellence?

It’s a fun mental exercise.

The Trudeau government, already swamped with requests for funding for a thousand worthy causes, will decide whether it should become reality.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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