It's certainly cause for national celebration when a 23-year-old Albertan concert pianist like Jan Lisiecki creates a quality album of Chopin's works for Deutsche Grammophon, the most prestigious classical label in the world. The Juno's recognition of his talent in March should be applauded, as should his work.
However, when a Canadian soloist is backed by the German NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestre under the baton of a Polish conductor, recorded in Europe, it begs to be questioned whether the large classical ensemble Juno is the appropriate award. While the win bears no breaking of Juno rules, the large ensemble in this case is not Canadian, and the recording doesn't even qualify as Canadian Content for airplay on the CBC or other stations.
The Junos are highly recognized as Canada's top music awards, so the best classical large ensemble album award should go to a Canadian group, not Canadian soloists backed by Europeans. If we worship foreigners with our domestic music awards, there is little for Canadian talent to aspire to other than emigrating to join foreign orchestras and choirs. Perhaps a separate category needs to be set up for works by Canadian soloists.
When so many of the best classical musicians in Canada are contracted to work in our orchestras, should we not be recognizing the hundreds of them rather than Canadian soloists backed by foreigners? Beyond the large ensemble Juno, the other classical awards are for "Solo or Chamber Ensemble" and "Vocal or Choral Ensemble," for which recordings by organisations like the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra are ineligible.
This year, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir's recent recording of Handel's Messiah with Sir Andrew Davis received a Grammy nomination for Best Choral Performance, pitting Canadian talent against choirs from Britain, Germany and the United States. Despite being a contender for the world's top choral trophy, at home the record didn't even receive a nomination, and the vocal/choral Juno went to a Dutch orchestra fronted by the noted Canadian soprano and conductor, Barbara Hannigan.
While some Canadian orchestras and choirs have their works nominated in the Junos' classical categories, the wins frequently go to soloists working with foreign musicians. I'm told that a common view inside the Canadian classical world is that award wins are largely about politics, and the recognition of individual's names (as some are saying may have been a factor with Sir Andrew Davis's name being tied to the Grammy nomination).
A celebrated local baroque orchestra's former managing director told me years ago of the struggle they faced with credibility on their early forays into Europe. As Canadians, they were constantly battling a stigma of being fiddlers from a new world colony. The reality is, when Canadians play classical, for many Europeans it's like Russians playing Celtic music; the nationality of the performer leads to a perceived lack of authenticity. Yet if we don't afford our own ensembles the respect they deserve, how can we expect the world to?
For me, this year's large ensemble Juno felt like a personal defeat, although I recognize my work is far more experimental than anything the classical Junos ever validate. A symphony which I'd spent six fastidious years creating had been, unsurprisingly, passed over for nomination. It was possibly the only new Canadian orchestral symphony recording to come out last year — these things aren't tracked — and I can attest, there is little incentive for emerging Canadian composers like myself to invest our lives, souls and savings into creating symphonies.
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When foreign organizations receive classical Junos, Canadian musicians lose a brass rung, and our orchestras and choirs lose an opportunity to be recognized and validated. The work of Canadian musicians is being positioned as inferior by the very awards show whose mandate it is to elevate their music. I share in celebrating our internationally successful soloists, though let's get the rest of our orchestral players and choristers in there too.
But the Junos are the Junos; it's fantastic to have national music awards, and if they stir up discussion around Canadian music, they're doing their job just fine, no matter who's holding the statue.
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