RIP Oliver Knussen (1952-2018)

Knussen Honorary Doctorate RAM July 2018
Oliver Knussen received an honorary doctorate from the RAM on 5 July 2018.

Saddened to learn of the passing of composer and conductor Oliver Knussen. One of the truly great musicians of our time, Knussen had received an honorary doctorate from the Royal Academy of Music, where he was Richard Rodney Bennett Professor of Music, just a few days ago.

A renowned pedagogue as well as a superlative conductor of contemporary music, Knussen held positions with such organizations as London Sinfonietta, Aldeburgh Festival, Tanglewood, BBC Symphony, and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group.

While not as prolific as some of his contemporaries, his catalog included a number of high quality works. Knussen will be remembered for compositions such as his two Maurice Sendak operas – Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop – orchestra pieces such as the Horn and Violin Concertos and Fanfare with Fireworks, and his settings of Walt Whitman and, in a Requiem for his late wife Sue, Emily Dickinson and W.H. Auden. Knussen’s final work, O Hototogismu!, consisted of adaptations of 17th-19th century Haiku poems for soprano and ensemble. It was premiered at Aldeburgh in June 2017.

 

Tanglewood FCM 2017 Highlights (Pt. 1)

Nathan Davis, “The Sand Reckoner.”
Photo: Hilary Scott.
  • This year’s Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood (in Lenox, Massachusetts) was curated by three youngish stars of the new music community: pianist Jacob Greenberg (ICE), cellist Kathryn Bates (Del Sol Quartet), and violist Nadia Sirota (Q2, ACME). Each planned a chamber music concert, consisting of commissioned new works and contemporary repertory selections. The curators combined forces with the BSO in selecting pieces for the festival’s finale, an orchestra concert conducted by Stefan Asbury and Vinay Parameswaran.
  • Commissioned works included vocal pieces by Nathan Davis and Anthony Cheung, a string quartet (with copious use of water-filled glasses and glass bowls) by Kui Dong, and Clip, a chamber ensemble work by Nico Muhly (for which I contributed program notes). These showed a diversity of musical approaches. Davis and Cheung took postmodern textual compiling as the jumping off point for stylistically varied and technically demanding singing. Dong revelled in glassine textures, both in the strings and with the water glasses themselves, while Muhly presented one of his most rhythmically intricate works to date, in places extending the language of post-minimalism towards the polyrhythms of late modernity.
George Lewis with the performers of “Anthem.”
Photo: Hilary Scott.
  • A standout on the concert curated by Greenberg on Thursday, August 10th was Columbia University professor George Lewis’s first appearance at Tanglewood (at age 65). Noteworthy for his work with AACM and a catalogue of compositions encompassing facets of concert music, jazz, improvisation, and electronics, Lewis was represented by Anthem, a 2012 piece originally written for Wet Ink Ensemble. At Tanglewood, Wet Ink’s vocalist Katie Soper, herself a prominent and creative composer, delivered a supersonic performance of a part written in Sprechstimme to Lewis’s own text about TV talking heads and subversive political commentary. Teddy Poll conducted, Greenberg contributed electronics, and the rest of the players, to a person impressive, were mostly guest musicians from ICE. Imaginatively scored and surpassingly energetic, Anthem was a rousing closer to FCM’s first evening.
Fromm Players perform
Johnston’s String Quartet No. 4, “Amazing Grace.”
Photo: Hilary Scott.
  • Friday afternoon featured a program of string quartets curated by Bates. A detailed and fine-tuned performance of Ben Johnston’s microtonal Fourth String Quartet by the Fromm Players (for which I was fortunate to contribute program notes) loomed large, but Bates introduced other fine pieces to Tanglewood audiences as well.
  • Croatoan II for string quartet and percussion by Moritz Eggert, supplied the proceedings with a welcome dose of humor, treating the mystery of a disappearing colony of early American settlers with more whimsy than tragedy. Percussionist Tyler Flynt, using what Bates described as a “suitcase’s worth” of hand percussion instruments, made the quick changes both in tempo and instruments seem effortless. Rene Orth’s Stripped (2015), a piece written in memory of the trumpeter Alex Greene, her Curtis classmate, began with noise-based sound effects and traversed an imaginative pathway to soaring harmonics. Although it didn’t quite gel in the Tanglewood performance, Terry Riley’s G Song is an attractive deployment of all manner of scalar patterns and jazzy cadence-points (look for Del Sol Quartet’s next CD to hear it more authoritatively rendered).
Eggert’s “Croatoan II.”
Photo: Hilary Scott.
  • Violinist Cameron Daly and cellist Chava Appiah performed Lei Liang’s Gobi Canticle, a piece that incorporates material and techniques from Mongolian string music. Liang visited the Nei Monggol region in 1996 to learn more about its music-making. This is deftly demonstrated in Gobi Canticle, which is at turns gently lyrical and boldly dramatic in cast.
  • I was most pleased to be introduced to the work of Jack Body (1944-2015), the recently departed New Zealand composer whose works synthesize ethnomusicology and composition. The wonderfully fleet and attractive Flurry (2002), in a version for three string quartets, opened Friday’s concert. Led by Bates, this all-too-brief work was immediately encored. One was glad to have the chance to hear it again and, unlike some encores, the performance was just as strong the second time around.
Kathryn Bates leads three string quartets in a performance of
Jack Body’s “Flurry.”
Photo: Hilary Scott.
  • Later this week I will be writing more about FCM, as well as the BSO concerts that coincided with the festival. The article will appear on both my blog and Sequenza 21.

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Sunday Morning at FCM

TMC Fellows perform Anders Hillborg's Brass Quintet during FCM, 7.24.16 (Hilary Scott)
TMC Fellows perform Anders Hillborg’s Brass Quintet during FCM, 7.24.16 (Hilary Scott)

The Sunday concert at Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music is always something of a marathon. It starts at 10 AM and is chock full of offerings that usually challenge the ear as much as tantalize it. The Sunday concert has traditionally also been the one that tests the capacities of the TMC Fellows most thoroughly. This year was no exception, although it was a horse race between Sunday’s chamber music concert and Monday’s presentation of Messiaen’s formidable Turungalila-Symphonie, a work that vibrated and thundered with intensity, shaped with eminently detailed care by conductor Stefan Asbury.

 

Ander’s Hillborg’s Brass Quintet is one of his most often played pieces, and one can readily hear why. Its opening antiphonally spiralling textures reveal a kinship to a more recent orchestra piece, Hillborg’s Vaporized Tivoli: both make a similarly captivating impression. There is an excellent use of repeated note textures, and the bold harmonic language makes it clear he’s studied a fair bit of Copland.

 

Brett Dean’s Sextet (Old Kings in Exile) is a cleverly crafted Pierrot plus Percussion piece with a number of scoring touches that set it apart from the average piece in the genre. There’s the clever use of percussion, with bowed vibraphone and gongs occurring simultaneously to create a two-headed beast of an instrument. The middle movement gives a nod to Carter’s Triple Duo by splitting the ensemble into a double trio. There’s also some mid-movement scordatura that changes up the harmony and proves to be quite an impressive feat from the strings. Jonathan Harvey’s Song Offerings, settings of Tagore, featured soprano Sarah Tuttle. The piece combines several of the composer’s harmonic interests, including spectralism, microtonality, serialism, and modality. Glissandos and melismas are ably deployed to further variegate the texture.

Guest conductor David Fulmer leads TMC Fellows in Pierre Boulez's 'Derive 1,' 7.24.16 (Hilary Scott)
Guest conductor David Fulmer leads TMC Fellows in Pierre Boulez’s ‘Derive 1,’ 7.24.16 (Hilary Scott)

David Fulmer has appeared at Tanglewood as a string soloist and composer. In the intervening time he has added conductor to his resume, and he did a fine job leading two pieces on Sunday’s concert. The first was Pierre Boulez’s Derive 1, one of his finest chamber pieces from the 1980s. Much shorter than his later Derive 2, seven minutes compared to nearly an hour, it is a compact utterance, but an eloquent one. Long sustained harmonic regions are parsed out again fast melodic filigrees and rapid trills. Christian Rief led Franco Donatoni’s Arpege, a piece that was originally a vibraphone piece and was later built up to a Pierrot plus Percussion Sextet. As one might expect, the vibraphone’s arpeggios lead the proceedings, in a curious amalgam of post-tonality and minimalist figuration. The ostinatos appear in almost “locked hands” scoring at first, then gradually stagger to create a lustrous shimmering from the ensemble.

 

Fulmer returned to the podium to conduct Harold Meltzer’s song cycle Variations on a Summer Day, settings of Wallace Stevens. The cycle has grown over time; I saw an earlier performance at Symphony Space that had, if recollection serves, around eight songs. It has since expanded to sixteen. Not only are the Variations longer, they have become more elaborate. There is a use of microtones in the winds that is quite attractive. The vocal part, here performed by the estimable Quinn Middleman, takes up far more vertical real estate, casting down into a nearly contralto register and up to high soprano notes. Middleman is billed as a mezzo soprano and her effort here was impressive, but I’m curious if subsequent performances might benefit from using two singers, a mezzo and a soprano, to better capture the distinct registers required by the songs. It is clear that Meltzer has lived with the poetry for a long time, and his settings of it are imaginative, ranging from terse utterances to attractively varied textures. Those who eschew the morning hour on Sundays at the Festival of Contemporary Music miss out.

7/23: Pierrot plus Percussion at Tanglewood

TMC Fellows perform Barbara White's "Learning to See." Photo: Hilary Scott.
TMC Fellows perform Barbara White’s “Learning to See.” Photo: Hilary Scott.

The Pierrot Ensemble, named after Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and consisting of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, has, since its inception, been a signature assembly for contemporary music. The preferred version of the ensemble also includes a percussionist: the “Pierrot plus Percussion” grouping is the default core membership for many new music groups. Even after dozens, if not hundreds, of pieces have been written for “P+p” ensembles, there is still plenty of vitality left in the genre. This was abundantly in evidence on the Saturday afternoon concert on July 23 at Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music, where several of the pieces employed this instrumentation or an augmented variant of it.

 

Barbara White’s Learning to See takes as its inspiration several works of visual art by Tinguely, Brancusi, Hesse, and Johns. The use of movements inspired by Brancusi’s Bird sculptures, of which he made fifteen, as a refrain in the piece allows for subtle variations on a pool of similar materials. Meanwhile, the other movements explore syncopated rhythms and ricocheting counterpoint. There’s timbral variety too, briefly including a prepared piano. Learning to See takes on a melange of musical material, but fits it together in fascinating ways.

 

Visual Abstract by Pierre Jalbert is connected to art as well, but in a different way from White’s piece. After its composition, video artist Jean Detheux made a computer-generated series of images to accompany the piece. Its individual movements are based on three different overarching images. “Bells – Forwards and Backwards” gives the ensemble the chance to play with a complex array of pealing sounds replete with overtones. “Dome of Heaven” contains luminous harmonies and lyrical string duos. “Dance” is a contrasting closer. Bongo drums articulate mixed meters while the other instruments engage in an elaborate game of tag.

 

Donald Crockett’s Whistling in the Dark adds a few instruments to the P+p grouping: an extra percussionist, a viola, and double bass. It has a quirky cheerful refrain, called “boppy music” by the composer, that is contrasted with passages of considerably greater heft. The work is strongly undergirded by its percussion component, which includes unorthodox instruments such as suspended flower pots. The piano’s percussive capabilities are played to maximum advantage as well. Over this, corruscating string and wind lines dart in and out in various combinations. Just when you think that the piece will whirl into a maelstrom, the cheery “boppy” refrain, the piece’s “whistling in the dark” brings it back from the edge.

 

Arthur Levering employs a variant of the P+p grouping too, with viola and double bass augmenting the complement in place of percussion. One of several “bell pieces” Levering has composed, Cloches II focuses on overlapping the limited pitch oscillations of bells. The repetition of these figures gives the piece a consistent feeling of momentum. Despite the absence of percussion, there are plenty of gonging sounds provided by the instruments: Levering has cited a particularly low cello riff towards the end of the piece as imitative of “Big Ben.”

Erin Gee's "Mouthpiece 29." Photo: Hilary Scott
Erin Gee’s “Mouthpiece 29.” Photo: Hilary Scott

Two other works on the program employed ensembles that are removed from the P+p context. Elizabeth Ogonek’s Falling Up (love the Shel Silverstein reference), is for a trio of winds — flute/piccolo, English horn, and clarinet — and two string players: violin and cello. In addition to Silverstein, Ogonek has indicated that a quite contrasting poem — Rimbaud’s Enfance — served as a contrasting inspiration for the piece. Thus we see two disparate types of music, one embodying Silverstein’s whimsy — complex rhythms, trills, altissimo register playing, and angularity — and Rimbaud’s sensuousness — slow-moving, sostenuto passages with frequent punctuations from different subsets of the ensemble — that provide rich contrasts and imaginative textures. Erin Gee’s Mouthpiece 29, commissioned by the Tanglewood Music Center, featured the composer as vocalist alongside three string players: violin, viola, and double bass. Gee is adept at incorporating all manner of mouth sounds and extended techniques into her music. Thus, microtones, pizzicatos, and glissandos from the strings were well matched against Gee’s own sliding tones, lip pops and trills, and phonetic (rather than texted) vocal lines. Mouthpiece 29 was the most “out there” piece on this year’s FCM, but it was greated by the audience with an enthusiasm that suggests that Tanglewood might be ready for more post-millennial avant classical offerings in the future.

Julian Anderson

At the Festival of Contemporary Music today, we also heard the premiere of Julian Anderson’s Second String Quartet. A fascinating piece filled with alternate tunings and myriad playing effects, it is one that I will be pondering for a long while.

Here’s a video of a piece that I heard recently, Anderson’s Prayer for solo viola. It was played on a Locrian Chamber Players concert in New York.