Aldeburgh Festival 2019 unveiled

Much excitement today. A press release with unexpected news about next year’s Aldeburgh Festival. A well-timed uplifting piece of comms, shining light on an otherwise grey news-less lunchtime.

Effective because in a split second of opening the email I was momentarily catapulted onto Aldeburgh beach in the early summer of next year. Home. New discoveries. Escape.

There’s a lot to plough through. When your primary motivation is discovery, it’s always difficult to pinpoint particular concerts, events or strands. It’s Aldeburgh. It’s all good, right?

What’s pulling me in early on before booking opens on 15th January is the inevitable Olly Knussen celebration. A year after his unexpected death and 50 since Benjamin Britten commissioned Knussen to write a work for the Festival, it’s right Aldeburgh spotlights his contribution to contemporary music. And, for those of us who have come late to his canon, it’s the first few steps along a new path. Something to look forward to.

Ryan Wigglesworth conducts the debut concerts of the Knussen Chamber Orchestra featuring Knussen’s Scriabin Settings and O Hototogisu! (11 June). Other tributes include Stephen Hough performing Prayer Bell Sketch in his solo recital (12 June).

Danny Koo and pianist Daniel Lebhardt’s Britten–Pears Young Artists concert performing Autumnal and Ophelia’s Last Dance (14 June); the Ulysses Ensemble  with Coursing (14 June) and Nicholas Daniel and friends present three of Knussen’s chamber works, including the revival of the unhappily titled Fire, the work for the 1969 festival that premiered just days after the new Snape Maltings had burned down (22 June).

Aldeburgh Cinema shows Oliver Knussen: Sounds from the Big White House, a Barrie Gavin film celebrating his 50th birthday (14 June).

There’s one thing doesn’t especially make sense to me.

Why on earth did Snape Maltings choose the New York Times quote (pictured above) for its Festival homepage? At best its a mealy-mouthed endorsement. At worst, its meaningless. Massively detracting from the brand.

Booking opens for Aldeburgh Festival 2019 on 15 January.

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.

LSO: Birtwistle Violin Concerto / Knussen Symphony No. 3 / Elgar Enigma / Simon Rattle

It wasn’t faultless. But, truth be told, faultless would have been disappointing.

There were shaky moments in the Elgar – chords anticipated which probably could have done with a moment before they were placed. A premature woodwind cue as well.

Elgar’s Enigma work settled down by the third variation. The strings worked hard – the rapport between Rattle and the section undeniable. This is where Rattle’s impact was felt most keenly, the entire section sounding like one breathing entity.

Members of the string section were visibly moved after the final variation. “That was very good,” mouthed one of the firsts to her desk partner.

Birtwistle’s Violin Concerto is a lengthy and demanding work, for soloist and audience alike, stitched together with a rich violin solo that showcased the technical mastery and considerable stamina of Christian Tetzlaff.

Musically, Ades’ Asyla was the most engaging work – a sensory overload scored by a composer whose concise writing makes for an absorbing concert experience. Helen Grimes’ Fanfare glittered and shone; Oliver Knussen’s third symphony resonated with warmth and passion.

Rattle began his formal public-facing relationship with the LSO with a bold statement of intent – a programme celebrating British composers that gives the UK concert scene a shot in the arm. A bold start to a new relationship a lot of us have considerable hopes pinned on.

I can’t think of any other cultural experience where an ongoing professional relationship can be witnessed.

The opportunity to witness a developing relationship and discern the resulting change in the auditorium makes Rattle and the LSO not just a brilliant musical pairing, but one underpinned by drama.

A faultless performance would have denied us jeopardy. What we’re left with now is the concert-hall equivalent of a cliffhanger just without the peril, and the promise of an ongoing story. That’s something the classical music world desperately needs right now.

Proms 2009: Prom 30 – Grime Knussen Stravinsky Jeux de cartes

As Proms experiences go this season, Prom 30 was a little odd.

I’d wanted to go to the Royal Albert Hall to put right my embarrassing attendance rate (there are an increasing number of concerts where I’ve left during the interval). I was also interested in the bitty programme of unheard of names and works. Respighi I’d heard of and I’d heard of Oliver Knussen though none of his compositions. The UK premiere of a short piece of music by a composer I’d never heard of seemed tempting too. There was also something appealing about attending a concert I figured not many other people would go along to as well. The atmosphere is always a lot more relaxed when there are quite so many people in the hall.

At some point during the day however, I had this bizarre idea it might be interesting to get some audience reactions to contemporary music straight after it had been listened to. This ridiculous idea expanded to include a possible interview with one of the composers of the music and before I knew what I was proposing to myself, my Friday night jaunt to the Albert Hall had turned into work.

When I arrived at the Albert Hall the reality of such wild ideas did dawn on me. There’s a reason television programmes take a long time to organise … because they take a long time to organise. People need to be briefed on what they need to provide. Contributors need to be sourced. Interviewees need to be cajoled. And support staff need to be pinned down. It didn’t take long to realise that what had seemed like a brilliant idea at eleven o clock in the morning wasn’t standing on it’s own two feet some six hours later.

I spent a long time running around the Albert Hall looking for people to interview. I had one person in mind and was fairly certain I could find that person either in their seat or in one of the many bars in and around the Hall. My search was fruitless. When I did a final desperate sweep of the Albert Hall backstage bumping into a couple of smiling if bemused radio producers, I knew it was probably time to give up on the whole thing.

However, mid-way through Helen Grimes’ UK premiere of her work Virga and somewhere towards the end of Oliver Knussen’s Horn Concerto in the first half (there’s an interesting horn player’s view on the concerto available on ribruce’s blog), I realised there might be one way of salvaging the initial idea. The interview I had arranged before the concert with one season ticket holder in the queue still needed to be pursued. The tail end of which is included in this post to be going on with. (The rest takes just a little bit of doctoring, but be sure to keep an eye out for it in the next few days.)

As for the music … I’ve now (finally) consumed all of the concert across a variety of different platforms. The first half in the Royal Albert Hall arena on the night, the entire second half on the radio with a spattering of both on television.

Season ticket holder and game interviewee Scott was right about the Stravinsky ballet in the second half. It was indeed the best bit of the concert and put pay to my flippant conclusion that the problem with listening to Stravinsky ballet scores without the dancers is that they’re required. (Interestingly however, Jeu de cartes is quite possibly the only score alongside Firebird which doesn’t make me yearn for people leaping around on stage. I can’t put my finger on why as yet.)

Listening to the radio broadcast did mean I got to hear the brilliant contributions from conductor Oliver Knussen whose heads-up about the various references to different compositions scattered throughout Jeu de cartes made for a more intense listening experience, more satisfying perhaps than being in the arena. I’ve yet to hear the Beethoven Symphony No. 5 snippets Knussen signposted, but I’m certain a repeat listen will rectify that.

  • Thanks to @petergregson and Scott Cooper for their contributions in the snippet of interview above. Apologies for the aspect ratio issue in the video which makes for a slightly odd viewing experience.
  • Listen to Prom 30 on Radio 3 (first half / second half) or watch the adorable Suzy Klein aided and abetted by Mr Zeb Soanes in a purple striped shirt playing poker with Anthony Holden. Keep an eye out for a cracking interview with conductor and composer Oliver Knussen in the interval.
  • Horn player ribruce’s review on Martin Owen’s performance of Knussen’s Horn Concert