Oliver Knussen’s Boston connections run deep – in the 1970s he studied with the New England Conservatory professor Gunther Schuller, and later went on to hold many important positions at the Tanglewood Festival (run by Boston Symphony Orchestra) – so it was with great warmth that he was welcomed back to Boston this year for a series of portrait concerts to celebrate his 60th birthday. The first concert, with Boston Symphony Orchestra, featured Knussen’s much-loved Whitman Settings and Violin Concerto, alongside Russian composers Myaskovsky and Mussorgsky. The second concert, with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, delved into Knussen’s earlier works, Music for a Puppet Court and Symphony No.2.
Boston Symphony Orchestra
‘… [the] program, curated and conducted by the British composer Oliver Knussen, had the exploratory energy and distilled interest of roughly a full month of typical subscription concerts, all packed into a two-hour stretch. For Knussen’s Whitman Settings, the composer chose four brief poems varyingly ethereal in subject matter, and fashioned for them concise yet beautifully evocative musical worlds… Knussen’s music seems to cast him as both learned astronomer and instinctive stargazer, alert to the complexities of craft and to the simplicities of found beauty. So it likewise appears in Knussen’s Violin Concerto, written in 2002 for the soloist Pinchas Zukerman, who was on hand to dispatch this work with skill and tonal warmth, especially in its surprisingly songful middle movement. The piece’s finale brims with energy, spinning a virtuosic solo against a precisely shaped orchestral backdrop.’
The Boston Globe (Jeremy Eichler), 13 April 2013
Boston Modern Orchestra Project
‘Knussen’s 1983 Music for a Puppet Court brought both to the fore. Arrangements of two polyrhythmic canons by the Renaissance composer John Lloyd are coupled to a variation on each in Knussen’s deftly labyrinthine style, one twittering, restless, the other unfurling swaths of ornamented lyricism. Like all of Knussen’s music, the score’s compulsively vibrant orchestration — the sound fairly glistens throughout — shapes a fluid sense of time and its passing.
The evening closed with a superb performance of Knussen’s 1971 Symphony No. 2, premiered when he was 19, already showing full modernist assurance. Poems by Georg Trakl and Sylvia Plath trace a long, expressionistically uneasy night; the music teems and broods, motion often seemingly compressed into vertical layers of counterpoint. Darkly glinting, expertly tangled, the symphony inviting and unsettling all at once.’
The Boston Globe (Matthew Guerrieri), 15 April 2013
…and receives an honorary NEC degree
At the same concert Knussen was presented with an honorary Doctorate of Music from the New England Conservatory. He was praised for music that ‘jumps off the page, grabs and entrances the listener’, as well as for being ‘a major force in illuminating contemporary music’s complexity and intensity.’