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Born in Glasgow in 1952, Oliver Knussen has lived most of his life near London, where his father was for many years the principal double bassist of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO). It was with the LSO that Knussen made his conducting debut at age 16, leading his own “First Symphony” (1966–67).
He began composition lessons with John Lambert, later studying in the United States at Tanglewood Music Center in Boston with Gunther Schuller. It was during these early years that he composed a series of works which have been added to the repertory of ensembles all over the world: the Second Symphony (Margaret Grant Prize, Tanglewood, 1971), “Hums and Songs of Winnie-the-Pooh,” “Océan de Terre” and “Ophelia Dances, Book 1” (Koussevitzky centennial commission, 1975).
He returned to the United Kingdom in 1975 and began producing a sequence of works that have placed him firmly in the forefront of contemporary British music: “Trumpets” (1975), the “Triptych” (“Autumnal,” “Cantata” and “Sonya’s Lullaby” 1975–77), “Coursing” (1979) and the “Third Symphony” (1973–79). The latter work has enjoyed more than 70 performances in Europe and America under conductors who have included Vladimir Ashkenazy, Andrew Davis, André Previn, Simon Rattle, Esa Pekka-Salonen, Gunther Schuller, and the composer himself.
During the 1980s Knussen largely devoted himself to the operatic double-bill written in collaboration with children’s book author Maurice Sendak and commissioned by Glyndebourne Festival Opera: “Where the Wild Things Are”(1979–83) and “Higglety Pigglety Pop!” (1984–90). “Wild Things” has enjoyed productions at Glyndebourne, in Amsterdam, Minneapolis, Chicago, Kansas City, New York City Opera, Los Angeles Music Center, Nuremburg and Munich.
Knussen was appointed an artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival in 1983 and from 1986 to 1998 also served as coordinator of contemporary music activities at the Tanglewood Music Center. In 1990–92 he held the Elise L. Stoeger Composer’s Chair with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and in 1994 was made an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
The multi-talented Knussen also has appeared throughout the world as a guest conductor. In the United States he has led the Chicago Symphony and Cleveland orchestras, the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony and Tanglewood Music Center orchestras, the San Diego Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. He has been heard in Europe with the Bayerisches Rundfunk Symphony Orchestra, the Asko Ensemble and Schoenberg Ensemble (Amsterdam), in Japan at the Music Today Festival, and in Australia at the Melbourne Summer Music Festival. His conducting activities in Great Britain include serving as Conductor Laureate of the London Sinfonietta, appearances with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the Philharmonia, the BBC Symphony, and the City of Birmingham Orchestra and at the BBC Proms. In 1995 Knussen signed an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon to record as a conductor a variety of 20th century music, including his own works.
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