Sib1 VC

Severance Hall
February 6 – Thursday at 7:30 p.m. 

February 8 – Saturday at 8:00 p.m.

Violin Concerto, Opus 30

Oliver Knussen  (1952-2018)
composed 2001-02

At a Glance
Knussen wrote his Violin Concerto in 2001-02, co-commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Pittsburgh Symphony.  The world premiere was given in Philadelphia on April 5, 2002, with Pinchas Zukerman as the soloist and the composer conducting.

This concerto runs not quite 20 minutes in performance.  Knussen scored it for 3 flutes, oboe and english horn, 2 clarinets, bassoon and contrabassoon, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, percussion (side drum, tenor drum, tam-tam, 2 triangles, 2 suspended cymbals, tubular bells, glockenspiel, vibraphone), harp, piano (doubling celesta), and strings, plus the solo violin.

The Cleveland Orchestra has previously performed this concerto on a weekend of concerts in February 2005, conducted by the composer and with William Preucil as the soloist.

About the Music
Oliver Knussen was a master perfumer among contemporary composers.  He was able to take a complex chord and distill it down to its essence before diffusing it across the page of his score, allotting each instrument a precise role within the tincture.  

He was also a man of contrasts.  On the podium he had a bear-like, imposing presence, while at the composing desk he was, as he once stated, “profoundly drawn to miniature things and fineness of detail and precision.”

His perfectionism meant he produced a relatively modest number of works, each of them testifying to his commitment to detail.  (With on-again off-again infamy, he twice postponed and then never completed a commission for The Cleveland Orchestra, to be titled Cleveland Pictures and inspired by artworks from the Cleveland Museum of Art — a veritably modern “Pictures at an Exhibition,” at least in concept.)

A typical Knussen orchestral score has clear, refined gestures, careful application of color, and exquisite orchestration.  It is also short.  His Third Symphony is over in a quarter of an hour, and his Violin Concerto is barely longer.  

His works are, in fact, masterclasses in concision, and the purity of his technique reflects that of Benjamin Britten, a composer who inspired Knussen initially and whose legacy he was proud to continue through his residency in Aldeburgh, Britten’s hometown.

Knussen was the son of a professional double bassist and showed an early enthusiasm in writing for orchestra, composing his first symphony aged fifteen.  

His appetite for music and exploration led him down many avenues.  He excelled as a conductor of 20th century and contemporary repertoire, curated exciting programs as an artistic director on both sides of the Atlantic, and was an enthusiastic advocate and mentor for many young composers.  His death in 2018 left the contemporary music scene bereft of one of its most recognized and tireless champions.

Creating a modern violin concerto
Knussen wrote his Violin Concerto in 2002 for Pinchas Zukerman, who had given support early in the composer’s career conducting the United States premiere of Knussen’s children’s opera, Where the Wild Things Are, in 1985.  As befits its dedicatee, the violin line in the concerto has distinctly a lyrical quality to it, recalling the same kind of romantic touches Knussen had given his horn concerto in 1994.

The concerto is in three “scenes,” as Knussen describes them, each with titles borrowed from the baroque era:  Recitative, Aria, and Gigue.  Although there are clear parallels with their baroque precedents, Knussen warns in his own program notes for the premiere in Pittsburgh that the “expressive world is sometimes wildly at odds with expectations.” 

Broadly, however, the rationale for the movement titles is borne out in the writing.  In each movement, Knussen distills the essence of its baroque predecessor and re-imagines the devices and rhetoric of that period in his own, highly personal language.  In the first movement, the violinist is given the ornamental lines and free speech of a solo recitative.  In one memorable section of the Aria, the melody is crafted from eloquent interlocking intervals in the sweet spot of the violin’s range.  The Gigue is suitably playful, although in places it veers towards the savage — like a “vaudeville clown,Knussen insists in his commentary. 

Across the entire piece, the soloist is given a bright spotlight in which to shine, mainly through the subtle and restrained orchestration of the accompaniment.  The score’s instrumentation is an important factor here.  There are three flutes, which often feature as a luminous treble choir.  The woodwinds have a contrabassoon for some moments of menace, but are otherwise restricted to one per part.  The brass is similarly pared back, ceding space to a celesta and harp, and there are just two percussionists (fewer certainly than many modern compositions, but more than many other traditional concertos).  It is a conservative line-up by modern standards, and vital for the transparency and delicacy that were so key to Knussen’s soundworld as a composer.

Throughout, you are aware of a very organized mind at work.  A perilously high harmonic E for the solo violin opens the piece over the toll of a bell and this sound-image is mirrored in the final bars.  The high harmonic also concludes the slow movement, so that we are given three aural pillar points at the beginning, middle, and end.  Knussen writes that the violinist resembles “a tightrope walker progressing along a (decidedly unstable) high wire strung across the span” of the work.  Certainly, the soloist’s part has treacherous moments hidden amongst its lyricism.  As ever, their role is to negotiate the complex lines while making it look natural.  A tightrope walk indeed.

Jonathan James © 2020

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