LA Phil Celebrates Treasured Friend Oliver Knussen

Oliver Knussen, seen here at a BBC Symphony rehearsal in 2012, was remembered in a pair of concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall. (Photo by Mark Allan/BBC)
By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles Philharmonic these days is not particularly known for sentimentality or automatically observing anniversaries that obsess the rest of the music world. But they did reserve a soft spot on their calendar for remembering Oliver Knussen (Ollie to his friends), the British conductor/composer who spent a lot of time in Los Angeles over the years before his death in 2018 at the age of 66. The Phil created a pair of programs in his memory at Walt Disney Concert Hall — an orchestral salute that occupied the first half of the LA Phil subscription program Dec. 7 and a Green Umbrella concert Dec. 10 featuring music by Knussen and four of his British colleagues.

Knussen was a big, gentle bear of a man whose girth was at odds with a small output over a 50-year-long career in British music. He started out as a teenage prodigy, famously stepping in to lead the London Symphony in his First Symphony in 1968 when he was 15 and completing his Second Symphony with a fully-formed musical personality by the time he reached 21.

Knussen was equally noted as a composer and conductor. (Wikipedia)

It was an opening act worthy of Mozart or Mendelssohn, and Knussen had the talent and capacity for growth to follow it up. He became a composer of mostly small-scale, painstakingly-crafted, wildly colorful works for big orchestras and small ensembles alike plus two short “fantasy operas” in collaboration with illustrator Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety, Pigglety Pop! The strenuous effort to get those two operas right consumed a good deal of the 1980s and led to a period of burnout. Knussen’s perfectionist streak, plus a burgeoning parallel career as a superb conductor of contemporary music (for an earful, seek out his terrific recordings of Benjamin Britten’s complete The Prince Of The Pagodas, Hans Werner Henze’s Undine, or a scintillating disc of 1960s serial-period Stravinsky) limited his output in his last decades. All of Knussen’s available music fits on just six CDs, with some duplication (there are three versions of Whitman Settings) and plenty of empty room on the discs.

One of the first things Knussen produced after the burnout period was a dynamic fanfare for Michael Tilson Thomas’ first season as principal conductor of the LSO, Flourish with Fireworks (1988). The “fireworks,” no doubt, are Stravinsky’s, for Knussen quotes that early showpiece in this four-minute dazzler, but I also hear some Varèse, particularly Intégrales, in the mix, intended or not. Anyway, it’s a smashing curtain-raiser that ought to be done everywhere, and on Dec. 7, Susanna Mälkki, the LA Phil’s principal guest conductor, led a direct, splashy rendition in which the details were beautifully lit.


Leila Josefowicz played Knussen’s concerto from memory. (Chris Lee)

Leila Josefowicz then knocked out Knussen’s Violin Concerto, a relatively late work (2001-02) that has less of the complexity and dissonance of his youth and more of a lyrical quality, perhaps inspired by the solo instrument. Josefowicz has become the foremost advocate of the piece — she performed it here in 2005 — and she and Mälkki gave it a stoic toughness. As in 2005, Knussen’s concerto was coupled with Beethoven symphonies — this time, just the Eroica, which Mälkki pushed along at a pretty fast clip, with classical textures, menacingly growling basses in the funeral march, and the fourth movement fugue emerging in clear detail.

Mälkki and Josefowicz co-curated the Green Umbrella concert, proposing a lineup of short pieces, none more than 13 minutes long, and then presenting a different order by the time we arrived at Disney Hall. The new lineup made a great deal more sense than the original one, opening with Knussen’s celebratory Two Organa as Mälkki reveled in the glistening orchestrations for 21 diverse instruments, with a Nord synthesizer simulating the missing harmonium. The piece tails off quietly in the end, as did all of the works heard in the first half of the program — Huw Watkins’ Piano Quartet, Knussen’s Ophelia Dances Book I, for nine players, and Helen Grime’s A Cold Spring, for ten players.

This is the most enticing anthology of Knussen’s music on CD.

Despite the differing instrumentations, the latter three works seemed of a piece when heard together, exploiting as many colors from a limited palette as possible, changing moods frequently, and moving along in indeterminate states of tonality and atonality. Both Ophelia Dances and A Cold Spring have featured solos for French horn (played by Amy Jo Rhine) — the former a lonely soliloquy over sustained strings, near the end, the latter set in a somewhat harsher tone, in the slow movement.

There was considerably more variety in the second half. A bare stage and mood lighting were the only backdrops for a haunting, somber electronic piece by Jonathan Harvey, Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco, which manipulates the sounds of the big black bell in the Winchester Cathedral and the voice of Harvey’s own son as a choir boy. Knussen’s Reflection for violin and piano — done to a turn from memory by Josefowicz with backing from pianist John Novacek — was one of his last completed compositions, a further gravitation toward tonality that finally arrives at an intense, even anguished conclusion.

Susanna Malkki (Simon Fowler)
Susanna Mälkki led an energetic rendition of `Hidden Variables.’
(Simon Fowler)

Colin Matthews’ Hidden Variables for 15 players, originally set to lead off the concert, was definitely in a better slot as the closer. Besides being the longest piece (if you call 13 minutes long!), it contained a wealth of interesting ideas — a persistent woodblock tapping away followed by a haunting minimalist vamp, a swimming passage evoking ocean waves, even a venture into the voicings and manner of Philip Glass. The Glassian episode is what Matthews must have meant when his program note wryly states, “In this piece, various styles, some more fashionable than others (including my own), collide and give rise to juxtapositions, and the title implies little more than that there is something going on beneath the surface.” Mälkki led an exacting, energetic rendition.

The only serious quibble that I would have about this Knussen mini-festival is that they should have programmed more of his music on each night, which wouldn’t have taken up much more performance time. What little there was went over well — with Reflection receiving the wildest ovation on my informal applause meter.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America. He also contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America, and wrote the Oliver Knussen entry in the book, Third Ear: The Essential Listening Companion: Classical Music (Backbeat Books, 2002).