Southbank Centre declared this Saturday to be Oliver Knussen Day, a festivity I would happily celebrate every year. Around now, Olly (who died in 2018) would have reached his 70th birthday, and in the best of possible worlds would have been conducting a generous weekend of his own, and other people's, music. Instead, SBC music director Gillian Moore had assembled a fascinating afternoon of Knussen memories, designed to engage new listeners as well as those who had known him for a long time.
As part of this latter group, I nevertheless learned a lot. For instance, I didn't realise that the musical Knussen family (many of whom have played the bass professionally) now stretches four generations from Olly's daughter Sonya back to her great-grandfather, a bassist in the Hallé Orchestra. I was also properly reminded about what a major career OK had for several decades as a conductor around the world, with a particularly loyal following in Japan. He actually met Stravinsky, and engaged extensively with Britten and Stockhausen. Plus of course hundreds and hundreds of less eminent composers, whom he however treated with equal respect. The afternoon included a touching talk by his - yes very eminent - student Mark Turnage about the encouragement Knussen naturally bestowed on the composers who crossed his path, whatever stage they had reached.
A sparkling LPO evening concert under Edward Gardner demonstrated the orchestral mastery of the composer we'd been talking about. Interestingly, when the advertised soloist for the Knussen Horn Concerto had to cancel because of illness, a 19-year old RAM student, Annemarie Federle, took his place at 24 hours' notice. She's obviously a brilliant hornist, and her performance was remarkable. But it's also notable that this contemporary concerto must already be repertoire for the most able student players. All the Knussen scores in this concert (especially Whitman Settings, with Sophie Bevan the revelatory soprano) leapt off the page. As pointed out earlier in the day by Julian Anderson, everything in the scores really works, a very rare phenomenon in modern music.