On 1 October the Grossman Ensemble, based in University of Chicago’s Centre for Contemporary Composition, opened the 2022/23 The University of Chicago Presents Series with a concert of music dedicated to Oliver Knussen and George Benjamin, conducted by Stefan Asbury.

Knussen’s Ophelia Dances, Book I, a 1975 work for nine instruments, opened the programme. The 8-minute piece is inspired by lines from Hamlet, as the tragic Ophelia dances by the brook in her insanity: ‘snatches of old tunes/ As one incapable of her own distress’. ‘Old tunes’ gave Knussen his harmonic and melodic material for the piece, drawing on Schumann’s Carnaval and two late works by Debussy (La boîte à joujoux and Gigues).

Gilles Vonsattel also performed Benjamin’s  Shadowlines (2001) for solo piano, a piece he recorded in 2015. The 15-minute piece is a set of six canons of remarkable drama and invention, with Benjamin’s manipulation of the basic material going far beyond the usual procedures of transposition and invention, with a title suggestive of the hidden processes at work in the piece. Vonsattel has been performing Shadowlines for over a decade across venues in the United States, Canada, Switzerland, and Germany.  

Knussen’s 1992 work for mixed chamber ensemble Songs Without Voices followed. Knussen said of the 11-minute work for flute, cor anglais, clarinet, horn, violin, viola, cellos and piano:

Over the past few years I recovered an old enthusiasm for writing songs, and it occurred to me to try to apply this to the instrumental sphere. Three of the present pieces are, literally, songs without voice – that is, a complete poem is ‘set’ syllable for instruments in the course of a movement; and one is from a more private lyrical impulse – a cor anglais melody written upon hearing of the death of Andrzej Panufnik, a person I much admired.

Concluding the programme was Benjamin’s At First Light (1982), a 20-minute piece for a chamber orchestra of 14 players. The piece, inspired by Turner’s painting Norham Castle, Sunrise – unfolds in three movements: the first sees superimposed fanfares burst into hazy, undefined textures; an extended second movement is subdivided into several contrasted sections, full of abrupt changes in mood and tension. The concluding movement arrives without a break, and progresses in a continuous, flowing line illuminated with ever more resonant harmonies.

The concert also saw the premiere of Knussen tribute Dance Mobile (in memoriam Oliver Knussen) by CCCC director and founder Augusta Read Thomas.