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Vienna Philharmonic wins Birgit Nilsson Prize

April 9, 2014

VIENNA (AP) — The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra added a prestigious feather to its cap Wednesday, with the Birgit Nilsson Foundation picking it as this year’s winner of its $1-million prize named after the late Swedish soprano.

It is the first time an orchestra has been chosen since the prize was launched in 2009. Then, the choice fell on opera star Placido Domingo, who was personally chosen by Nilsson and honored three years after her death. Conductor Riccardo Muti was picked three years later.

Orchestra President Clemens Hellsberg told The Associated Press that he was honored by the choice, describing the famed Swedish diva as having a huge “impact on my life” as a violinist.

Birgit Nilsson Foundation president Rutbert Reisch said the choice of the orchestra fit the award’s criteria for artists “who have made the biggest contribution to classical music.”

The Birgit Nilsson prize adds to the list of honors accorded to the Viennese ensemble, which is recognized as one of the world’s greatest. In 1999, Nilsson was made an honorary member in recognition of the Philharmonic’s close cooperation with one of the 20th Century’s greatest sopranos.

A multiple Grammy winner and nominee, the Philharmonic was chosen as Europe’s finest orchestra by a panel of experts in 2006. Gramophone Magazine listed it third in the world in 2008.

Tarnished by its Nazi past, the orchestra has moved to right past wrongs from that era.

Last year, it quietly stripped six former senior Nazi officials of honors awarded them — a late act of contrition for the Philharmonic’s embrace of Hitler’s rule that included purging Jewish members from its ranks.

Under the Nazis, 13 musicians with Jewish roots or kin were fired by the orchestra and five died in concentration camps. By the end of World War II, about half of the Philharmonic’s members had joined the Nazi party.

After refusing to accept women to permanent membership for more than 150 years, it gave in to protests from women’s groups and opened its ranks to females in 1997.

Asked Wednesday whether the award finally decided the informal competition with the Berlin Philharmonic as the better orchestra, Hellsberg demurred.

“I don’t think we should deal in music in terms of sports,” he said, adding that the sole mission of any orchestra “is to reach the hearts of the audience.”

Hellsberg, who is on the five-member jury that decides on winners, withdrew from the judging once it became clear that an orchestra would be chosen this year.

He said the full orchestra would travel to Stockholm for the Oct. 8 award ceremony, in the presence of King Swedish King Carl XVI Gustav and Queen Silvia for a performance of works by Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner, conducted by Muti.

“It is our desire to express our gratitude, and not only in words,” he said of that decision.

As for the prize money, Hellsberg said the orchestra would decide on what to do with it at its next assembly.

“We are a democratic institution,” he said.

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