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Oliver Knussen to Conduct Several Premieres Tonight

February 22, 1988|JOHN HENKEN

"What characterizes British composers of my generation is that they are very independent," says Oliver Knussen. That independence should be apparent tonight, when the 35-year-old composer-conductor leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group in an evening of premieres at the Japan America Theatre, as part of the UK/LA '88 Festival.

In a typical program of his, Knussen says, each piece "cross-references to at least two others."

Relaxing over Perrier at a rehearsal break, he confides, "I do find a certain glee in throwing together things that are subliminally related." And then, in a personal aside, he complains of jet-lag, having only recently arrived from the Melbourne Festival in Australia via a stopover in London.

The Monday program, which Knussen developed with New Music Group director John Harbison, makes "an attempt to be as varied as possible." It boasts works by six composers, "all of whom have been influenced by the States in some way."

Independence and American influence appear clearly in Knussen's own history. The son of a professional musician, he began composing at 6. At 15, he conducted the London Symphony in his First Symphony, becoming an immediate media darling.

Of the experience, Knussen says, "I was stupid enough to do it (become a prodigy), but smart enough to get out of the country as soon as it became a brush I might be tarred with."

His work abroad took him to Florida a year later, where he led the London Symphony in another Knussen premiere, and then to Tanglewood, where he studied with Gunther Schuller.

Knussen returned to England in 1975. To him, the specifically new-music audiences there and here "seem pretty much analogous." The general music public in England, however, "is immeasurably more conservative than in this country," Knussen reports.

That is something Knussen is working to change in his own music, by sponsoring younger composers and by conducting. He is artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival and coordinator of contemporary music activities at the Berkshire Music Festival at Tanglewood in Massachusetts; he conducts, he says, between 40 and 50 concerts per year.

That is an activity that is as much personal as it is missionary. "I work on a very fast fuse," Knussen says. "I find composing very slow, and I need more immediate gratification."

This schedule has not surprisingly reduced his efforts in other areas, and something may have to give in the near future. He is currently rewriting his second opera, "Higglety, Pigglety, Pop!" and preparing a work for the 20th anniversary of the London Sinfonietta. He has promised pieces for Peter Serkin, the City of Birmingham Symphony and New York Philharmonic, and concertos for cellist Yo-Yo Ma and flutist Paula Robison.

Though a West Coast premiere, Knussen's piece on the Monday program, "Ocean de Terre," is a relatively old one (1972, rev. 1976), composed "when I was on the way to finding the kind of music I write now." Knussen describes it as "very rich, and slightly chaotic."

The rest of the program lists two U.S. premieres--Alexander Goehr's "a musical offering (J.S.B. 1985)" and "The Shorelines of Certainty" by Jonathan Lloyd--two other West Coast premieres--Harrison Birtwistle's "Deowa," Simon Bainbridge's "Concertante in Moto Perpetuo"--and George Benjamin's Three Studies for Solo Piano.

Goehr, whom Knussen considers "really a kind of musical philosopher," and Birtwistle represent the older generation. Lloyd and Bainbridge, Knussen's contemporaries, compose in a style that is the "closest to Minimalism on this program," according to Knussen, while he describes Benjamin as the "youngest, most European" of the group.

"I think a musical culture is healthy when there are a lot of things co-existing," Knussen says, and by that standard his program at least is robust indeed. He has been rehearsing with the New Music Group, with which he is much impressed, for a week, and is anticipating the performance eagerly. "It'll be fun," he says.

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