Originally published Friday, November 11, 2011 at 5:33 AM

Q&A with composer/conductor Oliver Knussen

British composer-conductor Oliver Knussen brings his Violin Concerto and works by Benjamin Britten and Luke Bedford to the Seattle Symphony on Nov. 17 and 19. Violinist Leila Josefowicz is guest soloist.

Seattle Times arts writer

Concert preview

Seattle Symphony Orchestra

Oliver Knussen, conductor, Leila Josefowicz, violin, 7:30 p.m. Thursday and 8 p.m. Nov. 19, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $17-$110 (206-215-4747 or

Also: Select Symphony musicians and guests in a chamber-music program of works by Brahms, Elgar and Knussen, 2 p.m. Nov. 20, Benaroya Hall; $35.


It's going to be a very British affair at Benaroya Hall next week, when English composer-conductor Oliver Knussen leads the Seattle Symphony in performances of Benjamin Britten's "Canadian Carnival," his Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia (from his opera "Peter Grimes"), Luke Bedford's "Outblaze the Sky," and Knussen's own Violin Concerto (with Leila Josefowicz as soloist). Along with that lush violin concerto, several Knussen chamber works are on the bill with works by Elgar and Brahms in the Symphony's Nov. 20 chamber-music series.

Knussen, in an email interview, was wittily forthcoming about Britten and the concert. Here's an edited version of our exchange:

Q: What drew you to Britten's "Canadian Carnival" and Four Sea Interludes/Passacaglia?

A: Given that I'm a Brit on my first visit to Seattle, it made sense to do Britten this time. "Canadian Carnival" is a gem of a concert overture, very striking and atmospheric and fun, and virtually unknown to the wider world, while the "Peter Grimes" interludes are one of my calling cards as a conductor — and, of course, unique masterpieces in their own right.

Q: You live in the village of Snape, where Britten did, and also were a longtime artistic director of the nearby Aldeburgh Festival, which Britten co-founded. I thought I read that you live in the house where Britten did, but now I can't track down the reference.

A: I do not live in Britten's house! That comes from Wikipedia, I think, and I had someone fix it. No, I live in my own very cluttered but cozy cottage, with books and scores and CDs and DVDs everywhere, which I've had for 12 years now ... I moved there primarily because I wanted to get out of London, which I find unbearably noisy and crowded these days (having previously loved living in the city), and as I was an artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival at the time it made sense to be there.

Q: I was amused to read your comment that Britten had "one of the most appalling singing voices" of any composer you encountered. What's your most vivid memory of Britten's singing voice in action?

A: Only one, actually — I was at an instruments-only rehearsal in Aldeburgh for the 1965 revival of "Curlew River" (the double bass part was written for my father, by the way), and Britten sort of Sprechstimmed his way through the vocal parts, in a low baritone voice of very limited range and with a very upper-crust English accent. It wasn't the most attractive sound, to put it mildly, but it was certainly memorable.

Q: We don't often have composer-conductors at the podium at the Symphony, and it makes me curious as to what gives you more pleasure: conducting other composers' works or conducting your own? And which do you find more difficult?

A: It's actually done a 360-degree turn in recent years. Previously I would have told you that conducting my own things is a piece of cake, but that learning other composers' works was tougher. Now I'd tell you the reverse. I have a tried-and-tested process for learning a new thing which works very well for me. But it doesn't seem to work so well for my own recent things, or perhaps I just don't want to objectify them too much.

Q: Do you ever, in the middle of conducting your own work, suddenly think: "Gee, I really wish I could change that"?

A: Oh yes! And usually do.

Q: Luke Bedford's music, to my knowledge, has never been played in Seattle, certainly not by the Symphony. What can Seattle audiences look forward to, and how did you (and Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot) happen to make Bedford your choice for rounding out the program?

A: Luke Bedford is included as a representative of a very gifted new generation of composers in the U.K. (and U.S, too, by the way) — he's in his early 30s now, I think, and writes music that is at the same time highly abstract in structure and very poetic in sound and resonance. "Outblaze the Sky" is a short piece which is, in effect, a single big crescendo. He writes beautifully for orchestra, and the harmonic world is beautiful and distinctive. And it's practical and relatively easy to put together!

Michael Upchurch: