The Tricky Task of Adjudicating M-Prize

Last May, the University of Michigan hosted the first M-Prize Chamber Arts Competition, the largest competition of its kind thanks to the number of applicants (172) and the unprecedented grand prize of $100,000. Supported by the U-M Office of the Provost and an anonymous donor, an additional $100,000 in prize money is divided amongst the winning ensembles in both junior and senior divisions in three categories: Strings, Winds, and Open (comprising any instrumentation).

That latter category is key: the “open” division further distinguishes M-Prize as a chamber competition that embraces a wide definition of the field and shines a light on its innovative possibilities. A stated goal of the competition, in fact, is to “evolve the breadth and depth of the chamber arts landscape and associated professional opportunities for exceptional ensembles.”

It was a thrilling launch for the inaugural M-Prize competition. The William K. and Delores S. Brehm Pavilion at the E.V. Moore Building, with multiple new and newly renovated recital venues, was a hive of nonstop activity during the two days of semi-final and final M-Prize rounds. Twenty-nine ensembles participated, with the top prize going to the Calidore String Quartet; the award was presented at the grand finale concert in legendary Hill Auditorium. Calidore competed against the Kenari Quartet (saxophones), representing winds, and Yarn/Wire, a quartet of two pianists and two percussionists. All gave riveting performances of exceptional virtuosity.

Observing the competition from his role as its incoming artistic director was chair of SMTD’s new Department of Chamber Music, Matt Albert, founding violinist/violist with the groundbreaking new music ensemble Eighth Blackbird. We asked Professor Albert to share his thoughts on the difficult task of adjudicating this unique new event, where modern and traditional approaches to music’s most fluid genre meet and compete.  

Last spring, when I accepted my position at Michigan, I knew that the appointment came with a daunting additional responsibility: to serve as artistic director of the newly created M-Prize. Though I would not begin teaching until the fall, I traveled to Ann Arbor to observe the first competition-to listen, take notes, ask questions, and generally figure out what this thing was trying to be.

In addition to seeing Calidore win the grand prize and hearing Yarn/Wire and Kenari give their own exceptionally moving performances, I was able to directly engage with the exciting and passionate discussion that encapsulated people’s reactions to the results. Most of that discussion can be distilled down to the asking and answering of this question: How do you determine excellence when comparing a string quartet to a piano/percussion quartet to a saxophone quartet? “Ah: so that’s what this thing is,” I thought. It’s the competition to ask and answer this question. Got it. Time to get to work.

To unravel this knot, the first task is to try to define excellence. Performative excellence is difficult but not impossible to define; judges ask themselves how accurate, how emotionally informed, how creative, how technically appealing a performance was. These are criteria that every professional musician has the ability to measure. Having expertise in strings gives someone a different set of ears for a string quartet than for a piano/percussion group, but the ears are still there. And having a diverse, inclusive jury panel meant we had representative expertise for a wide variety of performative experiences, and the judges had the opportunity to share their expert opinions with one another. Having a percussionist talk to a violinist about their analysis of how a percussionist played requires some translation, along with good listening skills, but it’s possible. I was privileged to engage in this kind of conversation for the 15 years that I played in Eighth Blackbird. It’s challenging and completely rewarding.

After we’ve addressed performative excellence, it’s time to move on to the bigger questions. Where do you place value? Which kind of excellence is best? Do you value masterworks over newer works? Do you value newer works over well-worn chestnuts? Whether new or old, how much does diversity and inclusion in repertoire matter? What about dress, presentation, transitions, charisma, and level of stage-animal-ness?

For years, while I was touring with Eighth Blackbird, those who considered booking us would compare us to traditional chamber ensembles. Would they rather hire a different group and get more easily accessible music? Or did they want one spot on their series taken up by a group that might not sell as many tickets, but would play music that was different from the rest of the series-music that was expanding outward from that canon?

We had to sell ourselves in that arena. We weren’t only being compared to other new music groups, we were being compared to all chamber music groups trying to get booked. So we asked ourselves: How do we do something different, but just as compelling and meaningful and -yes-excellent as a piano trio playing Beethoven? As a recital duo presenting lieder? As a small choir, a world music group, a jazz trio, a string quartet-all groups that got booked by the same universities, series, and concert halls that we did.

Our answer was to define who we were, and make sure that definition was clear in every aspect of our presentation. So for us, that meant: Play everything exceptionally well-all the time. Pick pieces and composers that represent our passions, our curiosity, our desire to challenge ourselves and to grow as artists. Consider our dress, think about the way we interact with audiences and each other on stage, and plan our spoken descriptions carefully to make sure they were consistent and showed purpose. We curated our performances to consistently express our version of excellence, and we made sure that what we were doing was consistently excellent. Though this expression wasn’t commonplace in 1996, we basically told ourselves: “You do you.”

Reflecting on these experiences, I have now asked myself, and my colleagues here, how M-Prize can encourage this kind of curation, and how can we adjudicate for it? From this discussion we’ve come up with some ideas that we will put in place for the 2017 competition. We will explicitly ask our judges to measure the curatorial vision of the groups, including it in their ratings of excellence. If a group plays all new music, the judges are empowered to ask why, and is it good music, and how does that repertoire compare to the masterworks? If a group plays nothing written after 1900, the judges can ask why, and is that music tired, and are they ignoring the future of the art form? We’ll be adding an interview round that includes the opportunity for Laureates (first prize winners in each category) to present and defend their own arguments for these and other questions, advocating for their own curation before they put it into practice in their grand finale performances.

New music isn’t better than old. And vice versa. Excellent musical performances-with excellence defined passionately, subjectively, and thoroughly-exists in many different guises. This, I believe, is why M-Prize exists, why it has these three divisions, why it engages with this difficult but not impossible task of comparing disparate ensembles. We feel there’s a place for it all, and we want to be the prize that rewards groups for both performing well and demonstrating how their way of performing well will sustain itself-why it’s valid, interesting, appealing, compelling, and necessary. Why we should listen, and why we should present it for others to hear.

That’s an amazing and exciting set of questions for us to address, and I’m thrilled to help this competition discover some of the answers.

The 2017 M-Prize Chamber Arts Competition takes place May 1-4, 2017. The application deadline is February 1, 2017. Visit the M-Prize website for more information.


By Matt Albert, assistant professor of music and chair of the Department of Chamber Music.