Few living composers rival Oliver Knussen for commanding wide respect on the basis of a small number of works. The British composer has only about 35 compositions to his credit, but they are virtually unmatched for their union of craftsmanship and lucidity. Knussen turned 60 last year, and England’s Barbican concert hall marked the occasion with a mini-festival dedicated to his music that included his two operatic collaborations with Maurice Sendak: “Where the Wild Things Are” and “Higglety Pigglety Pop!”
Now Boston is getting its turn. Knussen’s ties to the BSO run through Tanglewood, where he has been a fellow, faculty member, composer in residence, and director of the Festival of Contemporary Music. He will conduct the BSO at Symphony Hall in two concerts that feature his own “Whitman Settings” and Violin Concerto, as well as Leopold Stokowski’s arrangement of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” and the 10th Symphony of Russian composer Nikolai Myaskovsky (Friday and Saturday). Two Knussen works are on the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s concert titled “Olly, All Ye, In Come Free” (Sunday). At that performance, he will be presented with an honorary doctorate from New England Conservatory.
Knussen answered questions from the Globe via e-mail during the week leading up to the concerts.
Q. How did it feel to be feted so strongly on the occasion of your 60th birthday? I wonder if you feel as though you’ve gone from being a composer to being something of an institution.
A. It was certainly a very strange sensation indeed. I was very touched and most grateful for all the attention, and such terrific performances – particularly a wonderful new production of the Sendak operas done (for a nice change) without my direct involvement. But it didn’t square with the part of me that feels that I’ve hardly begun to do what I mean to accomplish as a composer, so it all feels oddly premature. I found the best way to cope was to pretend it was about someone else which, in a way, I suppose it was, public and private personas being what they are.
Q. You grew up in a very musical environment – your father was principal double bass of the London Symphony Orchestra. Do you remember the first music you heard that made a really strong impression on you? When did you decide to become a composer?
A. We had lots of 78s in the house when I was growing up – all sorts of things, but virtually all orchestral music. The Stravinsky ballets were favorites, as were [Ravel’s] “Daphnis and Chloe,” bits of [Tchaikovsky’s] “Sleeping Beauty,” some of the Mahler symphonies, Elgar's “Falstaff.” . . . My Dad was a fanatical admirer of the great American orchestras, so there were lots of Boston/Koussevitzky and Philadelphia/Stokowski records. I remember one amazing Boy Scout jumble sale when I picked up Koussevitzky's Sibelius 5 and Stokowski's “Rite of Spring” for a few shillings – that was a good day!
‘My career would be unimaginable without Tanglewood.’
Q. You once said that as a composer you were “profoundly drawn to miniature things, and fineness of detail and precision.” Where did that impulse come from?
A. I've thought about this a lot, and have come to the conclusion that it's partly related to listening to short sections of music over and over on 78s – frequently incomplete sets, so that in a way, there was no formal context, only musical detail. Also, the music that fascinated me most in my teens – the later Stravinsky, Berg, Ligeti, for example – are all made of amazing, intricate mechanisms, whatever the differences of language and effect on the listener. And there is of course the fact that I am a very large person who has always felt like a child in some ways.
Q. Where do the two works of yours on the BSO program fall in your oeuvre?
A. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, after the operas were mostly out of the way, I wrote a half-dozen shortish pieces which to this day I think are some of the best I’ve done. Compositionally they are very intricate indeed, but the musical images are pretty bold and sharply focused, and the relationship of foreground and background which resulted pleased me very much. The “Whitman Settings” – which I wish I’d called something else, it sounds so dry! – is the biggest of those pieces, and though it's only 10 minutes or so, it’s quite symphonic – I think of it as a sort of miniature “Song of the Earth,” if that’s not too pretentious.
The Violin Concerto is one of only three pieces I released in the last decade (there are several more still cooking on various burners, however). It was originally suggested by an old movie of a vaudeville-style violin-playing clown, Wilbur Hall, playing “Pop Goes the Weasel’’ in dozens of unlikely ways. But that’s one stage in a dramatic trajectory that goes across all three movements like a high wire strung between the opening and closing sounds of the piece, which has an elegiac center. (9/11 had just happened.) Once again it’s modest in scale, but it’s freer in technique and more stylistically allusive than the songs.
Q. The other two selections on the program are wonderfully unconventional. How did you choose them?
A. I heard the Myaskovsky 10th Symphony on the radio one morning a few years ago and was knocked out by it. Imagine if Tchaikovsky had lived through the time of early Schoenberg and beyond the Russian Revolution, and had written a symphonic poem based on Pushkin’s “Bronze Horseman’’ about that huge statue chasing a terrified man around St. Petersburg, and you’ll get the general idea.
I used to do Stokowski's version of “Pictures” a lot when I started guest conducting, because no one else did. It’s less of a rarity now, but it is still a curiosity. Mussorgsky and Stokowski seem to meld into an imaginary third person, a great bear of a composer born somewhere between the Black Sea and Cape Fear (in the Bernard Herrmann sense).
Q. How important has Tanglewood been in your career?
A. My career – no, my life in general – would be unimaginable without Tanglewood, without the myriad experiences and lessons I learned there over the years. (I first went as a fellow in 1970!) Apart from anyone else, Gunther Schuller has been a great mentor and role-model for me. But to go on would double the length of this interview . . .
Q. You’ve acknowledged a difficulty with completing commissions. As you approach 61, is there an urgency about ‘completing’ your oeuvre in the years to come?
A. Most certainly, yes. I’m much preoccupied with this problem at the moment, and may very well change my whole pattern of life soon – wish me luck!!
BOSTON MODERN ORCHESTRA PROJECT
Gil Rose, conducting music of Knussen, Gandolfi, Ginastera
At: Jordan Hall, April 14.