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The bi-annual award, named after the renowned orchestral conductor, is presented to people or organisations in recognition of outstanding contributions to the UK’s music life. Founded in 1990 and broad in its remit, the award’s previous recipients have included Nicola Benedetti, Glastonbury Festival, Howard Goodall and Chandos Records.
The winners are selected by the board of management of Making Music, the membership organisation for leisure-time music groups, of which Sir Charles Groves was once President.
Professor Martin Ashley was a middle-school music teacher before concentrating on research into young male singing and Cambiata singing techniques for adolescent voices. His scientific insight came to particular prominence over the last year, where the implications of Covid-19 on choirs and music groups became a vital resource for policy makers.
As Making Music’s Chief Executive Barbara Eifler said on announcing the award, ‘Professor Martin Ashley can truly be said to have rescued many singers and choirs from the lowest of emotional lows during the last 18 months. In March 2020, he immediately started collecting research studies and evidence about singing and Covid, in order to inform and advise choirs with the best possible data and risk mitigations from around the world.
‘His clear, well-reasoned and science-based approach has helped many choirs gain valuable perspective and plan ahead to safe meetings in person. Over the last 15 months, he has been tireless in speaking at innumerable events and generous with his time in responding to the needs of singers and choirs in the UK. I am very pleased that his work is being recognised with this unique and prestigious award.’
Ashley said, ‘This award came out of the blue and I was, of course, delighted and honoured to receive it. Many people in many walks of life have struggled during the pandemic, but the valiant efforts of music leaders to keep their choirs and orchestras together have received disappointing little recognition outside their immediate sphere of activity. So, I would like, through this award, to recognise and pay tribute to their efforts, without which we would be facing a future of rebuilding music groups from almost nothing.’
Ashley’s paper ‘Where Have All The Singers Gone’, published by the Association of British Choral Directors (abcd) as part of the organisation’s Choral Directions research, gave clear, well-reasoned arguments for the risks posed by singing in closed environments during the pandemic and the prospects for choirs as the world comes out of lockdown.
The award’s co-recipient, Chi-chi Nwanoku, was awarded the OBE for her work with the Chineke! Foundation, which has done much to support ethnically diverse classical musicians in the UK and across Europe. A double-bassist, she was a founder member of the Orchestra for the Age of Enlightenment and she has become a familiar voice on BBC Radio and Classic FM, where she has championed the work of black and ethnically diverse composers and performers.
Eifler said. ‘Chi-chi does not just talk the talk, but walk the walk – as well as being an articulate speaker on inclusion and access, she’s a doer who just went ahead and set up the Chineke! Foundation, to start making things happen that nobody else was doing – truly an inspiration to us all.’
Nwanoku responded, ‘I’m deeply honoured to be receiving the Sir Charles Groves Prize alongside Professor Martin Ashley. It’s humbling to be counted among such illustrious recipients of this award – peers, mentors and icons who have inspired me over nearly 40 years of working in this industry.
‘My firm belief has always been that classical music is for, and should be, accessible to everyone, no matter your social or economical background or where you’re from. My aim with the Chineke! Foundation has been to give Black and ethnically diverse musicians and audiences a point of reference, a space where they can belong and access a treasure trove of music as well as to share the opportunities and benefits the state education system gave me in music.
‘The industry is gradually looking as though it wants to open up, become more diverse, inclusive and offer a sense of belonging, so if I have helped to facilitate that change then all is well.’