Violin Concerto, Op. 30

Oliver Knussen: Born in Glasgow, June 12, 1952; now living in Snape, Suffolk

British composer Oliver Knussen ranks as one of the leading figures on the world’s musical stage today. His compositions are performed regularly by major orchestras and musicians, he is a tireless champion of new music, and as a guest conductor he travels the world regularly. Knussen has visited Ottawa several times to conduct the NAC Orchestra, which has performed a number of his works including the Second Symphony, the Violin Concerto, Requiem: Songs for Sue, Two Organa and Scriabin Settings.

Although a child prodigy (his Symphony No. 1 - also his Op. 1 - received its world premiere by the London Symphony when he was just fifteen), Knussen did not become generally known in North America until the late 1980s, when his opera Where the Wild Things Are arrived in the United States (conducted there, incidentally, by Pinchas Zukerman). A second collaboration with author Maurice Sendak resulted in another fantasy opera, Higglety Pigglety Pop. Knussen writes exquisitely textured, imaginatively colored music that is often infused with theatrical gestures and/or humor, music that bespeaks a unique style. This quality was inculcated on him largely through guidance from Gunther Schuller, Knussen’s teacher at Tanglewood during the early 1970s. One of Knussen’s most frequently performed works is the Third Symphony (1973-79), which has been heard well over one hundred times in Europe and North America.

Knussen’s catalogue is not large. He writes slowly and meticulously, and, like Brahms more than a century earlier, rejects anything not up to his own demanding standards. In 2006, Knussen won the $100,000 Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize in Musical Composition from the Northwestern University School of Music in Illinois. He was cited by the selection committee for “his uniquely focused, vibrantly varied music and his total embrace – as a profoundly influential composer, conductor and educator – of today’s musical culture.”

Knussen wrote his Violin Concerto for Pinchas Zukerman, who gave the world premiere with the Pittsburgh Symphony, the composer conducting, on April 5, 2002. The Philadelphia Orchestra, which co-commissioned the work, followed up with performances a year later. The Canadian premiere also was given by Pinchas Zukerman, who performed it in Ottawa on May 6 & 7, 2004.

The twenty-minute work is laid out in three movements played without pause. “At times the violinist resembles a tightrope walker,” says Knussen, “progressing along a (decidedly unstable) high wire strung across the span that separates the opening and closing sounds of the piece.” Those opening and closing sounds are provided by tubular bells and the solo violin sustaining a high note. Alex Russell, in his review of the London premiere last August, wrote a telling description of the work:

“The opening and closing of the concerto … gave the illusion of the music falling back on itself and imploding rather than moving in a linear progression; we had ended up where we began - and time itself seemed negated; an uncanny experience. Thus, writing about this concerto from the beginning to its end is impossible because it has no beginning or end, but an eternal movement of disseminated fragments. … Knussen’s extraordinary contra-concerto goes against the grain of what constitutes a concerto in the strict classical sense of that term. There is no soloist per se, as Zukerman demonstrated, constantly blending his playing with the orchestra and dissolving his sparse sounds into a quiet stroke of a cymbal or gong. Knussen’s subtle scoring was tailor-made for Zukerman’s subdued and sensitive playing; the intense, economic nature of the orchestral writing complemented the violinist’s extremely taut, razor-edged sharpness of tone, which indeed resembled ‘a tightrope walker progressing along a (decidedly unstable) high wire.’”

Robert Markow