Monday, October 1, 2018

Brad Lubman and Ensemble Signal pay tribute to Oliver Knussen



       Ensemble Signal will offer a tribute to recently deceased British composer and conductor Oliver Knussen on Monday, October 15th at 7.30 P.M. The concert will take place in Lippes Concert Hall in Slee Hall, in the University at Buffalo’s North Campus in Amherst. Conducting the ensemble will be, as usual, longtime friend of the Center Brad Lubman, for whom this will undoubtedly be an important evening, given his strong professional and personal connection to Knussen since he worked as his assistant at Tanglewood between 1989 and 1994.
       Signal will perform four works by the British composer, from different moments of his creative trajectory: Hums and Songs of Winnie the Pooh, for voice and ensemble, and Sonya’s Lullaby, for piano solo, are earlier works. The former was written in 1970 and later revised in 1983, whereas the latter is from 1979. The other two works, Secret Psalm, for violin solo, and Songs without Voices, for ensemble, are from the beginning of the ‘90s, a time in his career when more and more of his time was being devoted to conducting. Also included in the concert will be two pieces by composers much admired by Knussen: Triple Duo, by Elliott Carter, and Rain Tree Sketch II, by Toru Takemitsu.

(Ensemble Signal and Brad Lubman)

       As Buffalo audiences have had many chances to witness, Ensemble Signal’s presentations are synonymous with outstanding performances. The last two times they played at Lippes Hall, they offered memorable versions of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and David Felder’s Jeu de Tarot. In this occasion they will lend their talents to a repertoire they are familiar with, since they have performed Knussen’s music before, including a portrait concert in the presence of the composer himself in 2013, at Miller Theater in New York City.
       Oliver Knussen was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1952, and not only was he an admired composer and conductor, but he reached that status at an early age. He was a musical prodigy, who conducted the London Symphony Orchestra—where his father was the principal double bass— when he was 15 years old to premiere one of his works, a later withdrawn Symphony No. 1. He studied with John Lambert from 1963 to 1969, and later with Gunther Schuller at the Tanglewood Music Center in the US, between 1970 and 1973.


(Oliver Knussen)

       As a composer, he worked slowly and deliberately, focusing on the smallest details and revising his work often until he was certain he was satisfied with it. Timbral and textural inventiveness are immediately noticeable characteristics of his music. Also, not strangely for someone who once described himself as an “unwilling grownup”, he had a penchant for working with children’s books. That is the case not just of his two operasWhere the Wild Things are and Higglety Pigglety Pop, both with libretti by their author, Maurice Sendakbut also of one of the works Signal will perform at the concert: Hums and Songs of Winnie the Pooh, based on the famous character created by A.A. Milne. Scored for soprano and five players, the piece begins with the episode where Pooh, assisted by a balloon, raids the Hunny Tree. Two of Pooh’s songs form the second and third movements. In the piece, the soloist shifts from passages of humming and nonsense texts, to elegiac melodic writing, to passages where the voice leaps about in a very high register. 
       Another piece to be performed at the concert, the piano solo Sonya’s Lullaby (1979), had for Knussen a more personal kind of connection to childhood. Its title makes reference to the composer’s daughter, mezzo soprano Sonya Knussen. The post-impressionist work makes prominent use of ostinatiespecially an ascending B-F diminished fifthand repeated notes, intercut with arpeggiated figuration. The other solo Knussen piece in the concert, Secret Psalm, for violin, often described as “meditative”, is a short work of decidedly solemn mood. The composer originally wrote it in 1990 to be played at a memorial concert for Michael Vyner, who had been the artistic director of the London Sinfonietta for many years. The piece was revised in 2003.


(Elliott Carter)

       The more recent work in the program, Songs without Voices, is a collection of four short pieces for a chamber ensemble of flute, English horn, clarinet, French horn, piano, violin, viola, and violoncello. According to the composer, three of the pieces are songs with poems set to the syllable, except that the melodies are sung by instruments rather than voices. The remaining piece is a melody written after Knussen heard of the death of Andrzej Panufnik, whom he greatly admired.
       To learn more about the importance of Oliver Knussen’s work and his example as a conductor, Edge of the Center recently contacted Brad Lubman -- this is what he had to say: “Olly was one of the most selfless conductors there ever was, completely at the service of the music and the performers. With his very clear and very musical technique, his mindbogglingly awesome ears, and very logical and musical rehearsal technique, Olly gave us revelatory performances by some of the great composers of the past and the recent past. Moreover, he tirelessly championed younger and lesser known composers, giving us striking performances and recordings which shall remain a vibrant legacy to some very important music of our time (including his own excellent and inspiring works of jewel-like, crystalline wonder). This sort of thing is a role model for all conductors. He had this incredible knack for being able to say two or three things to an orchestra or ensemble after only playing a few minutes at the first rehearsal, that would then enable the orchestra to understand exactly what would make things sound immediately better. He would make just a few comments and the orchestra would then grasp the style and then proceed to polish and refine things right away. With clear, precise, and musical rehearsal technique and baton technique, Olly would achieve the greatest results. It was a miracle to watch, especially with the fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra; he would get the most amazing results in no time at all. He would look through any score and be able to sum up what the piece was about, where the trickier parts might be, what would need more rehearsal time, what would come together easily… He just seemed to be able to know everything at just a glance.”


(Toru Takemitsu)

       Lubman also reflected back on Knussen’s qualities as a mentor: “He was able to objectively guide a young composer to find ways in which said composer could find their voice, or become themselves. He did this with the greatest amount of support and enthusiasm, always maintaining the most positive atmosphere.” The importance of Knussen’s own music was a subject Lubman was also eager to address: “Olly’s compositions all exhibit the highest possible level of craftsmanship, but also (and equally as important) the highest level of imagination, mystery, color, and engagement. His works are all like finely wrought crystalline jewels. He wrote music which is utterly mesmerizing, filled with magic, childlike wonder, and the most amazing colors, the most wondrous things you could imagine. His knowledge of instruments and orchestration was truly formidable, a true master. His sense of harmony (in both tonal and non-tonal realms) was absolutely amazing. He was one of the very few greatest composers of our time.”
       With respect to the relation between the Takemitsu and Carter pieces completing the program and their composer’s connection with Knussen, Lubman said: “I think the music of Carter and Takemitsu represented the two sides of Olly’s compositional thought processes and things he admired in general in contemporary music. There’s the allure and provocative nature of Takemitsu’s music, and then the dazzling narrative and sparkling surfaces of Carter’s intricate music. One can see and hear influences of both composers in Olly’s music (and very important influences from the music of Henze) as well as a kind of childlike sense of fantasy.”
       For details about tickets, visit Slee Hall’s website.