In amidst the Nobel Prize announcements this week, the Award Ceremony for the prestigious Birgit Nilsson Prize was held in Stockholm on 8 October. The prize, which was established by the great Swedish soprano during her lifetime, is awarded every two to three years to “outstanding achievement by a currently active performing artist or institution”. Following Plácido Domingo in 2009 and Riccardo Muti in 2011, this year the Prize was awarded to the Vienna Philharmonic, an orchestra with which Nilsson had a long and fruitful relationship both at the Vienna State Opera and in several memorable recordings. Nilsson was awarded the Honorary Membership of the Vienna Philharmonic in 1999.

At the press conference, and subsequently at the award ceremony, the current President of the Vienna Philharmonic, Andreas Grossbauer announced that the orchestra will use the entire prize money ($1 million) to the scholarly and analytical digitization of the historic archive of the Vienna Philharmonic (which goes back to its inception in 1842) and to improve public access to the archive by finding a a permanent home for the collection which is currently housed at Haus für Musik in Vienna where space is limited. Grossbauer further stated that “the Vienna Philharmonic believes that you ensure your future by remembering and documenting your past”. This is especially significant in light of recent revelations regarding the darker chapter of their history during the Nazi era.

The Award Ceremony and Prize presentation was held at Stockholm’s Konserthuset – the home of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra – attended by King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Sylvia of Sweden. Almost all the members of the Vienna Philharmonic attended and they preceded the Award presentation with a stirring performance of Liszt’s Les Préludes conducted by the 2009 laureate Riccardo Muti, who himself has had 44 years relationship with the orchestra. The Award was then presented by the King and Dr Rutbert Reisch, President of the Birgit Nilsson Foundation to Andreas Grossbauer and the previous President of the VPO, Clemens Hellsberg, who was the first archivist of the orchestra. Following a video excerpt of Birgit Nilsson’s performance in Tristan und Isolde at the Vienna State Opera, Muti and orchestra performed an orchestral version of Liebestod which was full of shimmering beauty and wonderful contributions from the woodwind and horns in particular.

I think initially many people were surprised and intrigued with this year’s choice of recipient. However, Dr Reisch explained during his address in the ceremony that after awarding the Prize to a singer in 2009 and a conductor in 2011, this time the panel actively decided to award it to an orchestra and after many discussions chose the Vienna Philharmonic in recognition of their contribution to opera (as their members are all players in  the Vienna State Opera) and for their relationship with Birgit Nilsson. The digitalization of the orchestra’s historic archive is a worthy use of the prize money and we will watch its development with keen interest.