1987 – Harrison Birtwistle

“The Mask of Orpheus,” a modern opera by British composer Harrison Birtwistle, has won the 1987 award. The four-hour opera features masked singers, mimes and electronic music. It was selected from 95 pieces submitted by conductors, critics, publishers and music schools in 20 countries.

Birtwistle, 53, was to be notified by telephone today about the $150,000 prize, the world’s largest for music composition. He will receive five annual installments of $30,000.

Widely regarded as the greatest British composer since Benjamin Britten, Birtwistle has composed dozens of works since 1959, including “Refrains and Choruses” for wind quartet and “Frames, Pulses and Interruptions,” a ballet.

The “Mask of Orpheus” generated high praise from music critics when it premiered at the London Coliseum in May.

Martin Bernheimer, music critic at the Los Angeles Times, called the work “incredibly complex, imaginative and ambitious… Although Birtwistle uses highly sophisticated compositional techniques, the impact of the opera is primarily emotional.”

Bernheimer, Louisville Orchestra music director Lawrence Leighton Smith and Rumanian composer Gyorgy Ligeti, who won the Grawemeyer Award last year for his piano “Etudes,” were judges for this year’s prize.