Guest conducting the BSO is enough to keep most musicians busy for a week, but while the distinguished British composer and conductor Oliver Knussen is in town, he is also hearing two of his works performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) in a free concert at Jordan Hall on Sunday [details] and serving as Master Composer-in-Residence at NEC. When I spoke with him, he had just completed a day of rehearsals with the BSO, but carried no hint of a maestro mentality. In the course of our conversation he came across as a nearly egoless artist and a thoughtful commentator on his own work and contemporary music at large.
Knussen was born in Glasgow 60 years ago, but has deep musical roots in Boston. In the 1970s he studied with former NEC president Gunther Schuller and during that time wrote the Symphony No. 2 that will be heard on BMOP’s Sunday program. Asked about the experience of reviving this early work, Knussen comments “it’s going to be quite sentimental — it’s very much in the places associated in my mind with happy times: Boston and Tanglewood. It was my first successful piece that got out there.” But the symphony, which includes a soprano soloist and settings of poetry by Georg Trakl and Sylvia Plath, also has a dark edge. “I was 18 or 19 when I wrote it, and when one is a teenager one is attracted by rather morbid things, expressionism and all that, and the poems are not exactly jolly.” Knussen notes that the texts served as triggers to explore ideas of his own, and now 40 years later he views the work with fond detachment: “I hear it very much as being by somebody else, but I know it very well … there’s a transparency to the sound of the piece which I rather like about it.”
Artistic Director Gil Rose will lead BMOP in this performance and Knussen is content not to interfere with another conductor’s interpretation of his older works, noting “when somebody else is doing it I want it to go its own way.” But concerning his more recent Whitman Settings, which he will lead from the BSO podium with soprano Claire Booth, he says “I’m still quite possessive … it’s very difficult to bring off, so I’m very hands on.” Also on the program is his violin concerto with Pinchas Zukerman, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in Stokowski’s orchestration, and Nikolai Miaskovsky’s Symphony No. 10 — a little-known work that Knussen champions and speaks of passionately. “I heard it on the radio and was knocked sideways. It’s as if Tchaikovsky had lived on into the 1920s: very expressive and very dynamic, but the musical language is totally chromatic. It’s a piece with tremendous energy and profoundly cold Russian slow music. It’s Saint Petersburg in freezing ice.” The BSO is programming it for the first time at Knussen’s request, and he states plainly “I wanted to hear it played by an orchestra like this.”
When asked about his dual career as a composer and conductor he says “I’m not proud of the fact that I’ve written a relatively small amount of music … I’ve filled my time up in other ways, which I feel guilty about. But the things I have completed tend to hang around, it’s heartening people still want to play them.” In regards to his compositional aesthetic he describes “it’s not music about big effects, it’s intimate, even when it’s on a large scale. It’s about detail: trying to find the right notes and have them speak. It’s not the kind of music that’s trying to make friends, but people still want to do it.”
We also spoke more generally about the state of contemporary music today. Knussen grew up on the tail end of a time when it was clear who the important living composers were — he notes Stravinsky, Britten, Shostakovich and Copland specifically. Indeed, these figures, who were clearly the greats during their own lives, remain with us in the repertoire to this day. Knussen comments with sad candor “a composer used to represent a point of view, now there there are different composers and schools. There’s no Stravinsky, Britten, Shostakovich, or Copland: composers of immense gifts and prized by their peers and beloved by the public, strong figures that represent a musical mainstream.” He elaborates: “That’s something I’m interested in. An intelligent mainstream. Not a talking-down-to-your-audience mainstream, which is all over the place and drives me crazy. Referring to another composer with a longstanding BSO connection, he says “Peter Lieberson got close to that kind of thing—music that was his own perspective but very communicative and intelligent—appeal to a non-specialist audience. That’s something I’ve tried to be. But people confuse accessibility with populism.”
This is a stark appraisal of the scene for composers today, and an apparent rejection of the authorized new music advocacy view that today’s stylistic eclecticism and pop influences are signs of a healthy and thriving culture of art music. In place of fractured fan-bases and niche subgenres, an intelligent compositional mainstream with a diversity of gifted musical voices is something to be hoped for. And if it reemerges one day in the future, it might well be nurtured in the Boston area where classical music, in general, is flourishing. After all, this is a city where in one week two quite different orchestras can present a single living composer’s works in concert halls just blocks away from each other. Knussen reminisces “in the early 70s not very much new music was being played at the BSO, except by Michael Tilson Thomas on the Spectrum Series. But when Schuller was president of NEC, he was also conductor of the orchestra. I went to the rehearsals and heard Mosaic by Donald Martino and Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra, and many pieces by younger composers. So that was a counterbalance. Now it seems like the musical life has grown up. With the advent of BMOP and the thriving Conservatory, Boston has a tremendously rich musical life and a wonderful pool of performers.”
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