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U of L announces 2023 Grawemeyer Award winners this week

2023 Grawemeyer Award Music winner Julian Anderson
John Batten
2023 Grawemeyer Award Music winner Julian Anderson

The University of Louisville and Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary began naming the recipients of the annual Grawemeyer Awards Monday, starting with its music prize.

British composer Julian Anderson, 55, has been named the 2023 Grawemeyer Music Composition awardee. His winning work is titled “Litanies,” a concerto for cello and orchestra, his first cello concerto, influenced by grieving the loss of a dear friend and mourning the damage done by a fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

Anderson told WFPL News he was shocked to get the call telling him he had won the prestigious award because it's huge for a composer and this kind of recognition felt like a first for him.

“Of course, one cares about people hearing it. It's not a megalomaniac thing,” he said. “There was a lot of effort going into this and you want it to get out there. That's natural. So it's also natural that when public recognition of this sort, which is very rare, comes your way, it’s very exciting, meaningful, touching and very humbling.”

He began working on the piece in 2018 and, soon after, lost his friend Oliver Knussen, a celebrated composer and conductor.

Anderson said there’s a specific passage, in which the cello leads the orchestra, that contains two lyrical phrases that are in memory of Knussen.

“To some extent, I would say his passing affected the whole piece,” Anderson said, adding that Knussen had played the cello as a kid and had a fondness for the instrument. “So this piece was bound to have some connection with that.”

The following year, Anderson watched, in horror, as flames engulfed the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

“I came home one afternoon, turned on the computer, and couldn't believe my eyes,” he said. “What one was seeing there was a wonderful old structure, which was collapsing, it seemed to be almost dissolving in the fire. Thank god that proved not to be the case, but it looked like it, that was the visual impression.”

He said watching the fire was traumatic and it had an impact on his writing of “Litanies,” particularly in the slow, middle movement where “there is a very precise set of musical structures.”

“They keep dissolving, specifically falling, and that is a reference to [the visual impression of Notre Dame on fire],” Anderson said.

Anderson described his concert as very lyrical as “the cello is a very singing instrument.”

“It's also rhythmic, energetic and, I hope, has a sort of quirkiness, but it is essentially a singing instrument, the cello, and I wanted the piece to be a singing kind of piece,” he said. “ And therefore the litanies of the title are songs, songs of celebration, songs of mourning, etc.”

Anderson is a professor of composition and composer-in-residence at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London. He’s also taught at Harvard University and the Royal College of Music.

Music ensembles like the Boston Symphony and New York Philharmonic have commissioned his work.

The Grawemeyer Award comes with a $100,000 dollar cash prize. Recipients will come to Louisville in the spring to lead talks about their winning work.

U of L grad and former Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary trustee Charles Grawemeyer established the annual award in 1984 “to recognize the power of creative thought and underscore the impact a single idea can have on the world,” according to the Grawemeyer Awards website.

U of L and the seminary will announce winners of the world order, psychology, education and religion awards throughout the week.

This story has been updated with additional information.