”Aren’t you the fantastic horn player I’ve been hearing?” came an introduction towards my direction, in that one of a one voice. We were in the Music Library at Tanglewood in the summer of 1980. As fate would have it on that humid Berkshire afternoon in July, I was studying the score of Voices by Hans Werner Henze and he was working on Where The Wild Things Are. I didn’t realize that just opening that particular Henze score would be all the personal introduction needed for Oliver Knussen to strike up a conversation with me.
A warm friendship began that would last for the next thirty eight years, until his untimely death a few weeks ago. We always remained in touch, either here in Los Angeles, where he conducted often in the 1980s, during our engaging phone calls, or on our return trips to Tanglewood to visit my wife Jan’s family. “I’ve certainly met you in past life!” would become Olly’s charming Leit-motif for saying hello to Jan.
Grief creates a strange energy, and I know that I am not alone coping with the shock that Olly is no longer with his daughter Sonya, with my wife Jan, with me, with any of his friends, with the entire new music community all over the world. A man of uncommon common sense, don’t let appearances fool you. Of all of Oliver Knussen’s gigantic appetites, the largest was for music.
“To think of Takemitsu and his music is to contemplate peacefully co-existent paradoxes.”
I am rather certain that when Olly wrote this in 1990 for a CD of Takemitsu’s music he was simultaneously sending us all a secret autobiographical portrait. Because Oliver Knussen remains, for me, a supreme example of artistic reconciliation. In a world increasingly defined by ugly polarization, Olly was a living example that the private was public, the brilliant accessible, the serious fun, that small could be major, that large might be tawdry, but always that the impossible was possible. In fact, impossible didn’t cross his mind.
“While it is certainly true that Carter’s orchestral music is complex in effect……the basic compositional principle is common sense.”
Olly remained true to himself, an icon amongst many of his contemporaries in our volatile musical landscape. Where legions of fellow composers, musicians, critics and the general public still experience aural befuddlment, Olly heard common sense in essential endowment repertoire of the 20th century from the likes of Carter and Stockhausen, among others, and in particular the late serial works of Stravinsky. In fact it will be Olly’s performances and recordings of these composers that will set the standard for future generations (YouTube, take a bow). He knew that. His hero composers, and the moral choices their music represent, are by no means common currency in our daily musical life in 2018. And he knew that, too.
Let me give you a Knussen inspired observational example.
To translate his viewpoints into local words for Los Angeles, he would be sad that one still waits for the Los Angeles Philharmonic or Los Angeles Master Chorale to perform Threni or Canticum Sacrum by Igor Stravinsky, written on Wetherly Drive in West Hollywood, along with numerous other Stravinsky pieces written here. Los Angeles Opera has never produced The Rake’s Progress. A comprehensive on-going commitment to these late Stravinsky works, year in, year out? Not on your life (you can search out Olly’s DG recording to hear his verdict). And Schoenberg, who lived further west off of Sunset Boulevard? A bridge way to far. You’ll also wait in vain for any music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic to conduct a major orchestral work of John Cage on a subscription series (Mark Swed, seriously, where are you?) even though Cage was born in the Good Samaritan Hospital a few blocks from Disney Hall.
I am convinced it was precisely these types of cultural compromises (they aren’t just unique to Los Angeles) that kept Olly away from shaping big institutions and why with his prodigious gift he still focused long term on new music groups. He once remarked to me how odd he found it to get big musical organizations behind simply the obvious. Olly was extremely picky, in a nice way, about what he would do and where he would do it. He would not allow his ideas to be artistically pushed around by administrations, a truth serum he did inject in me. This could extend to his insisting on a suite from The Invisible City of Kitezh by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov or Stokowski orchestrations of his biggest 19th century hero, Modest Mussorgsky, to round out a subscription series program.
When he initially came to Los Angeles after we met at Tanglewood, I called him up with an idea to welcome him to California. The first order of business was to drive him up to see the home of Igor Stravinsky. That sealed our friendship forever!
”Thanks so much, but I’m not surprised this would be the sort of thing you’d suggest. How typical…no one for the Philharmonic seems to know where Stravinsky’s house is,” was a humorously intoned sarcastic lament from Olly when we drove away that afternoon from our pilgrimage visit to Wetherly Drive. Stravinsky lived close to where I grew up, went to Sunday Mass at St. Victor’s on Holloway Drive according to my mom, facts he enjoyed immensely, as well as knowing my mom worked at Chasen’s and served Alfred Hitchcock. In particular I recall downing an entire bottle of Fetzer Zinfandel with Olly when his boutique hotel accommodation from the Philharmonic was a block above Holloway Drive. He had a deep feeling for history which we shared.
He’d also conduct my ensemble Southwest Chamber Music in the U.S. premiere of Sandy Goehr’s Sing, Ariel, without fee I should add, negotiating the only exclusivity release by Ernest Fleischmann during his tenure at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Observing Olly time the gears of this process was a permanent life lesson. Ernest received the code word “big bad wolf” in our faxes and phone calls (yes, faxes back then).
“Everyone here at the LAPO is afraid of Ernest, but I’m not,” said Olly with a stage whisper chuckle after a Green Umbrella concert backstage at the Japan American Theater in Little Tokyo. “Just let me handle him directly and all will be well.” He then slowly added “Don’t ask anybody else, like Ara (Guzelimian), to intervene or we’ll be sunk, Ernest won’t take to it coming from you or from his staff. He will take to it coming from me. So let’s be patient. OK?” And huge smiles broke out between us as he knowingly used his perfect initials.
Ernest’s release letter to us is priceless, humorous and as usual, Olly understood that there was only one truly essential issue for Ernest to resolve and grant him a release from Philharmonic exclusivity. That issue: simply stated, where would we be playing? Because Fleischmann despised the Ambassador Auditorium of The Worldwide Church of God, he believed they began a massive inflation of artist fees that would price a lot of people out (Ernest was right). Being at a modest church in Pasadena was no obstacle and all was well (Olly was right). Ernest even became a regular donor to our series.
My sad memory is now full of anecdotes, moments, laughs, observations, jokes, startled insights, frustrations, just the usual stuff of talking and being with Olly. For example, when I asked him what he thought of a performance I’d conducted of Hums and Songs of Winnie the Pooh, he responded “You’ve got it just right. It’s got to come across like Boulez’s Le marteau – but for a five year old!”
I’ve told you of this quip as a spring board into Olly’s paradoxes. He integrated opposites with ease. Henze with Stockhausen, Carter with Takemitsu with Debussy, Britten with Boulez with Ravel, or one of our favorite topics, Webern with Schubert with Feldman. These are all strange bedfellows on the surface, and most musicians have not considered any correspondences between them over their entire careers. Olly once chuckled that most career moves in classical music meant a soloist is “going from Beethoven to Rachmaninov” – supported by seemingly biblical revelations of revelatory new interpretive insight by major PR campaigns, things he truly despised.
But Olly had a perspective, his own powerful compositional perspective, that enabled him to easily dive beyond the surface into the deep background world of any composition, and then see similarities across time and space. Did all those notes he learned for conducting clutter his ability to think of his own music? That’s always a risk for a composer/conductor. I think he experienced it but successfully came out the other side with his focused gems. But along with Takemitsu, Oliver Knussen was both private and public at the same time. I found him always in counterpoint with himself.
“…there is hardly a moment in Takemitsu’s music which cannot be explained in western theoretical terms, there is also hardly a conjunction of phrase or gesture which would have been thought of by a composer with an exclusively western background.”
There are a few reasons I’m returning to Takemitsu’s influence on Olly. In his performances and recordings of his Japanese hero composer, he helped us all hear something truly pertinent in our changing world. There is no surprise to me that his last major piece O Hototogisu! concerns Japan. And a smaller work for violin and piano is largely unthinkable without the ghost like music of Takemitsu.
And so you don’t need to read between the lines, Olly was extremely keen on my ongoing work in Việt Nam with the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble. He’d also helped again by another release of exclusivity, for our 2010 Ascending Dragon project. By helping me contact the right people at the right time, I secured the Asian and U.S. premiere of Elliott Carter’s On Conversing With Paradise for a side-by-side performance between American and Vietnamese musicians.
And our last phone conversation included his amazed response that “You’ve surely found a huge link between Paris and Southeast Asia, probably straight through Messiaen and Boulez to, right, Việt Nam! Just tremendous. Take your time raising their standard but stick with it and we’ll keep on.”
And this is a true confession to friends and colleagues. When Jan and I learned officially from the U.S. State Department that we were receiving full funding to produce the largest cultural exchange in history between Việt Nam and the United States, we got the call while Olly was leading a composition seminar at the Hawthorne Cottage on the Tanglewood grounds. He was therefore the first person we shared the official news with, a perfect moment. And we had great Bloody Mary’s to celebrate!
And so we were both heading East the last time we saw each other. And once again, don’t let appearances fool you about Oliver Knussen. This gigantic man was the master of small delicate things.
“I think Olly is Takemitsu’s rishiki, a real Sumo conductor,” said my good friend Tami Nodaira in Tokyo last year. I often have a good laugh about imagining Olly in the tight spaces of Japan (I call it “space rage” as I’m guaranteed to eventually bump my head in a fantastic way every time I visit the country, somewhere, sooner or later). Because in Japan, Olly’s size was not questioned but accepted as a powerful attribute.
The two kanji characters that make up the word rishiki mean strength/power and gentleman/samurai. In other words “a gentleman of strength.” A most perfect description of Oliver Knussen.
But the Japanese word goes deeper. Rishiki were, in ancient times that might still be found somewhere in contemporary Japan, part of a Shinto dance ritual. The purpose of the ritual dance? To wrestle with kami spirits, to overcome through direct action the adversities one faces in life. Certainly Olly was accomplishing this for himself as a conductor, readily apparent to a Japanese audience.
And so now all becomes a Dream/Window for Oliver Knussen, and for those of us fortunate to have known him and spent time with his one of a one voice and his mind and his appetite for life and music.
I am a bit haunted that I intended to place a call to him the week he passed away. He had been conducting at the Aldeburgh Festival, and it appears the last piece he performed was Copland’s Appalachian Spring, a clear final gesture to his American family and friends. His Copland performance was a timely reminder to hold on to my American musical patriotism while we struggle here in Trumpistan.
My call that I sadly could not place was to talk with him specifically about his hero Hans Werner Henze, which now takes me all the way back to the day we met in July 1980 at Tanglewood. Had the call gone through, we’d have completed a circle.
The Henze score I’d opened the day he introduced himself to me, a score and moment from July 1980 Olly would have remembered, has a text by Uncle Hồ Chí Minh. The sort of thing Olly would have loved. And why I’ll miss him everyday from now on.
Best, best, best,