The space Oliver Knussen fills in the world of music is immense, and not only because of his big, genial frame. Busy as a most probing, perceptive conductor (and not only of contemporary music), he still somehow manages to find time to produce compositions of fastidious clarity and engagement.
But perhaps his greatest contribution is the generous support and encouragement he gives to so many composer-colleagues, not least those much younger than his 60 years which we, thronging from all corners, gathered to celebrate on Friday as he conducted the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group of which he is artist-in-association.
The programme oozed the riches of contemporary music at its most communicative, beginning with the gloriously post-modern ‘These Particular Circumstances’ by Sean Shepherd, allusive even to the extent of quoting directly (Holst and Ravel), dramatic, witty and convincingly structured towards a proper “big” ending.
In her laconic, to-the-point programme-note for the world premiere of ‘Nature’, her concerto for piano and 10 players, Tansy Davies paid us the compliment of leaving us to listen for ourselves. And it was so easy to follow this 60th-birthday present to Knussen, lyricism aching behind acerbic gestures, orchestral contributions significantly dovetailed into the piano’s busy-ness (especially the harp as its ‘alter ego’), and its structural nuts and bolts clearly discernible.
Most heartening of all in this Oslo Sinfonietta and BCMG Sound Investment co-commission was the contribution of Huw Watkins, vital to our musical life whether as composer or pianist. Here, wearing the latter hat, his command of the piano-writing’s demands was delivered with luminous clarity and fearless aplomb.
Then some of Knussen’s own music, with the composer conducting his delicate, tinsel-coloured ‘Ophelia Dances Book 1’, Huw Watkins on celeste here and moving over to the piano to accompany violinist Alexandra Wood in the two-movement ‘Autumnal’ (dedicated to the memory of Benjamin Britten -- thus the chain goes on) with its thrummings and tremolandi, and then Watkins the solo performer in ‘Ophelia’s Last Dance’, stately, but over-long in its valediction.
And I’m afraid there was in fact too much packed into the programme, with an extended interval to announce details of BCMG’s exciting 25th anniversary season, the stage-shifting which is a necessity between offerings, each for differing instrumental combinations, and the kindly-meant desire to include as much music as possible.
This meant that Magnus Lindberg’s strongly-imagined ‘Souvenir (in memoriam Gerard Grisey)’, packed with incident involving every instrument (some especially vivid contributions from clarinettist Joanna Patton), proved one piece too many at the end of a long evening.