Oliver Knussen (1952 – 2018)

Today has been a momentous day. First the resignation of the Brexit Secretary David Davis. Later, the announcement that Boris Johnson has turned his back on his responsibilities as Foreign Secretary. Tsk.

Amid such a febrile atmophere, the death of a much-loved composer could have struggled to gain attention. Fortunately Oliver Knussen benefited from the UK’s newest official classical music Death Correspondent breaking the news.

I was surprised just like everyone else. I’m not entirely sure I was especially sad. That’s not to say I am a cold-hearted bastard. Of course I’m not. I’m an emotional sort. No really, I am.

Here’s the thing about Knussen’s music. I never listened to it. That’s (partly) why I didn’t especially feel an overwhelming need to signal my sadness at his untimely death (and really, 66 is no age to pass away) like so many others did today. 

But I listen to his music now – his third symphony, for example – and feel like I’m discovering something new and exciting. So too the horn concerto and the violin concerto.

Was it ever so that the death of someone highly regarded triggers a moment when the rest of us ill-informed individuals suddenly embark on an all-too-late journey of discovery?

I have negative associations with Knussen’s music, wholly brought about by one interaction I had with him back in 1996. 

Back then, 24 years old, I was working at the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies. All of us on the administration team had registered the surprising lack of applicants for the then three-year-old Contemporary Music and Composition Course led by Olly and (if I recall correctly) Colin Matthews.

That year’s applications had been collated – CVs, cassettes, and aspiration – and put in a box formerly occupied by five reims of photocopier paper.

The Director of the School charged me with delivering the ‘shortlist’ to Olly’s house somewhere in Snape. I drove up towards what looked like a delightfully cosy-looking property. I got out of the car and handed over a box of applications.

“Not very much to choose from in there, is there?” Olly said to me as I handed over the box like it was a goblet of communion wine.

The tone of his voice made me think he was unimpressed with the applications (none of which he’d yet seen), displeased with me, or both.

Sure, reading it back that doesn’t sound like much to write about. But the truth is that I recall driving away terrified by the exchange. Had Olly regarded me as personally responsible for the assumed lack of talent present in the box I’d handed over? What did he expect me to magic up? What did I know? Why was I responsible for this? Why hadn’t Kathy delivered the applications? She was the Director after all.

Olly appeared as an other-worldly man – tall, imposing and intimidating. People spoke about Olly, but I never saw people speak with him. His knowledge, experience and musical appreciation presented itself as uncompromising and, for me at least, massively intimidating. 

Today I understand Olly Knussen died at the age of 66. That means that when I delivered those applications to his house, he was the same age then as I am now. 

The feelings which arose have resulted in me avoiding his music for the past twenty-odd years. I’ve looked on the love expressed for him ever since, and especially today, with an uneasy kind of confusion. 

I am surprised to learn of his death. I’m not sure I’m saddened yet. I get that he meant a tremendous amount to many many people. What saddens me right now is not understanding what our original exchange was really about, and not beginning to appreciate his writing until now.

Review: Sensation / Julian Anderson / Ben Smith / Borough New Music

When the music is contemporary there’s a reduced likelihood of recordings available to refresh the memory after a performance.

Julian Anderson’s suite for solo piano performed by Ben Smith yesterday at St George the Martyr in Borough, is a case in point.

The opportunity which emerges therefore makes for an entirely refreshing writing experience – one based on memory alone.

We may well approach the modern or unfamiliar with trepidation, but Anderson’s music is surprisingly accessible and Sensation, as the title of the suite suggests, is an illustration of the composer’s intent. The demands placed on the pianist are considerable, but the effects on the listener are electrifying, the bravura sequences in the fifth movement especially so.

All credit to composer and pianist Ben Smith who performed the work, originally composed for Pierre-Laurent Aimard and premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival last year.

This was a glorious celebration of sound performed by a musician who revelled in the tonalities and harmonics created by a robust and defiant instrument. The depiction of ‘near chaos’ in the second movement Sight Lines was a particular favourite.

Borough New Music concerts are staged every Tuesday lunchtime (not during December) and admission is free.

Borough New Music November 2017 Preview

Borough New Music – a rich offering of cutting edge works performed live in the heart of London – is a recent new discovery.

Every Tuesday lunchtime performance between now and June 2018 is free. Concerts are held at St George the Martyr Church, Borough High Street, SE1 1JA (just opposite Borough tube).  Each concert lasts around 50 minutes.

Contemporary music minus the historical baggage a lot of mainstream concert programming comes with.  All that’s required on the part of the audience is a sense of curiosity. In return, horizons will be broadened and thought-provoking experiences promised.

Each series – a monthly collection of events – includes four or five concerts: one featuring a performer; another a composer; one focusing on an instrument; and one ‘pot luck’. That means exposure to the latest, the best, and potentially the newest. That’s exciting.

November’s concerts (billed as ‘Series 3’) in the Borough New Music are as follows:

Tuesday 14 November 2017, 1pm Saariaho-Haas-Emmerson
Featured Instrument: Fixed Electronics
Ben Smith (piano), Patricia Auchterlonie (soprano) Chris McCormack (electronics)
Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952) – Lonh (1996)
Georg Friedrich Haas (b. 1953) – Ein Schattenspiel (2004)
Simon Emmerson (b. 1950) – Time Past IV (1985)

Tuesday 21 November 2017, 1pm Sensations
Performer: Ben Smith (piano)
Robert Reid Allan (b. 1991) – The Palace of Light (2016) (London Premiere)
Colon Nancarrow (1912-1997) – Three Canons for Ursula (1988)
Julian Anderson (b. 1967) –  Sensation (2015-16)

Tuesday 28 November 2017, 1pm Haikus
Featured Composer: Eva-Maria Houben
Antonia Berg (flute), Patricia Auchterlonie (soprano), Ben Smith (piano), Yoanna Prodanova (cello)
Eva-Maria Houben (b. 1955) – Haikus for four (I, V, VIII, IX) (2003-04) (UK Premiere)

On a side note, Jaime Gillarios deserves a medal for the graphic design. Gorgeous work.


Music: Heaven is Shy of Earth Julian Anderson BBC Symphony Orchestra BBC Symphony Chorus

The BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus conducted by Oliver Knussen was joined by mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley in the world premiere of Heaven is Shy of Earth by Julian Anderson (pictured left) on Friday 26 November 2010, at the Barbican Concert Hall.
What makes a new work successful? Is it simply the music? Or is it something else?

I had seriously underestimated the music of Julian Anderson (pictured left) music, a problem many contemporary composers must surely face when trying to connect with audiences, it has to be said. There’s an assumption that new music will be difficult or impenetrable. It takes a special kind of person to cast aside the stereotypical assumptions and take the plunge.

The first time you hear the ‘contemporary music’ may be memorable (I have a vague recollection of hearing the world premiere of the ‘nearly finished off’ version of Julian Anderson’s work Heaven is Shy of Earth at the Proms in 2006), but the music itself may quickly fade from memory.

This is largely to do with what is memorable. An event – a location, the smell, the people, the feeling of excitement you may have attending the event may stick in the brain longer than the unusual sounds you will hear in a new composition. It’s the feeling you had hearing that work for the first time which is most important. The newness of the work – its unusualness – may make the work itself less memorable. After all, who wants to hear anything that’s derivative? Who wants to walk from the concert hall whistling something you’ve heard before?

That new composition has to be original. As a composer you’ll also want it to be representative. You’ll also want it to engage the audience as well as the commissioners. You’ll want to build on your reputation. Or, if you can’t do that, you’ll want to maintain it. Whatever the outcome, you’ll want the impact of your composition to lodge your name in the minds of your audience. Your future solvency and possibly that of your offspring may depend on it.

OK, so maybe I’m taking that a bit far. Maybe I’m being a little overly dramatic about that. Hearing Anderson’s now completed Heaven is Shy of Earth at the BBC Symphony Orchestra gig on Friday night, I was however reminded of the most remarkable and most fragile of occupations. That of present-day composer.

If you’re an artist looking to draw on your skill to express yourself, then it’s a phenomenally tough existence. Quite apart being able to translate personal inspiration into an aural experience which you hope will appeal to as many people as possible, you’re also having to keep yourself in check ensuring you don’t compromise too much (if at all). After all, if the audience doesn’t enjoy it then at least you’re going to want to make sure that you’ve enjoyed the process.

Or maybe it’s not like that. Maybe composing doesn’t demand such incisive thought processes. Maybe composition is just instinctive. Maybe the skill at translating a soundscape in the mind into something on paper in pursuit of something in the concert hall is nothing more than riding a bike. Composers probably don’t even think about what they’re doing when they do it. How sickening.

But back to Heaven is Shy of Earth. Why did it engage my attention during the concert? Why too does it still entrance listening to it back?

BBC Symphony Orchestra

If I’d heard it on the radio first off, I may not have connected with it as much, it’s true. In the Barbican however, the sight of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus was impressive. In that respect, the sense of occassion imposed by the traditional presentation formula was vital. But the Barbican does more. Unlike any other concert hall in London, the Barbican concert hall has a meditative effective on the individual when the doors close. The acoustics flatter without exaggerating.

Mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley sang warmly without the thick sauce some other performers ladel on when they sing. And the chorus – save for one or two moments of what sounded like sheer panic – complimented with an equally full and uncompromising tone. This performance had foundation. And 60-70% of good foundations comes from enthusiasm for the music, something which in turn normally has its roots in enthusiasm for the composer.

But none of this would be sufficient if the music wasn’t any good. Anderson’s writing isn’t the self-indulgent example of academic excellence one might assume a contemporary composer to find irresistable. Instead, his writing maintains an acceptable compromise between the old and new, never overlooking the most important element in the concert hall – the audience.

If you’re new to the work, keep a close ear on the rich orchestrations and the brilliant chorus writing which permeates Heaven is Shy of Earth. Then treat the work – and the composer – as a yardstick against which other composers can be measured. Definitely worth a few repeat listens before the 7 day time limit is up.

:: Listen to a swift post-concert review from me plus an interview with composer Sean Shepherd whose work Wanderlust was performed in the first half of this concert.

:: Listen to Heaven is Shy of Earth recorded live at the Barbican Concert Hall via BBC Programmes

:: Listen to an interview with BBC Symphony Orchestra General Manager Paul Hughes.