Sue Knussen, 53; Producer Directed Education Programs for Philharmonic
Sue Knussen, a producer and director of award-winning music programs for British television and former education director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, died in a London hospital early Sunday morning after contracting a fungal blood infection. She was 53.
With a special ability to foster music’s human side, Knussen used mesmerizing historical footage in her widely acclaimed documentary, “The Art of Conducting: Great Conductors of the Past,” to convey just how closely the magnetic music-making of figures such as Arturo Toscanini, Leopold Stokowski and Leonard Bernstein was tied to the magnetism of their personalities.
Knussen carried over the same qualities in helping produce festivals and concerts in London.
“For a whole generation of us, Sue was one of the most inspiring people behind the scenes making things happen,” Simon Rattle, music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, said from his home in London on Tuesday. As an educator in Los Angeles, Knussen believed that the best way to make the classroom musically exciting was to inspire teachers. Working with the Los Angeles Unified School District, she and Fairfax High School teacher Alan Warhaftig created the Music for Educators program at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. They brought teachers together with eminent musicians, including Philharmonic music director Esa-Pekka Salonen and composer John Adams.
“The program was instantly popular,” Warhaftig told The Times. “You can’t believe how unusual it is for teachers to be taken this seriously by arts organizations and what an impact it had on all of us when Sue was running it.”
Salonen recalled Knussen as “enthusiastic, curious and always very funny -- a great inspiration for everyone who worked with her.”
Born Sue Freedman in Portsmouth, N.H., Knussen got a degree in music education and French horn at Boston University, where she also did graduate work in musicology. In 1971, she married British composer and conductor Oliver Knussen and moved with him to London, where she wrote concert program notes and album liner notes, interviewed composers and performers for radio broadcasts, and helped produce music festivals. She helped her husband to produce his operas “Where the Wild Things Are” and “Higglety Pigglety Pop!”
Joining BBC Television as a producer and director in 1988, Knussen was involved in the making of a three-part series, “City of Strangers,” about the community of emigre artists who came to Los Angeles in the 1930s and ‘40s. “The Art of Conducting,” which she directed in 1994, proved popular enough to be picked up and broadcast in the United States on PBS; it was released last month on DVD. She also produced “Leaving Home,” a series of seven hourlong TV programs for England’s Channel 4 that featured Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in a tour through the history of 20th century music. For “Leaving Home,” Knussen received the British equivalent of the Emmy award, the BAFTA, as producer of best arts series of 1996.
Knussen came to the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1996. She included not just schoolchildren but also the general public and music community at large in her education activities, which ranged from preconcert talks to seminars and symposiums. Many young musicians considered her a nurturing mentor, including the Philharmonic’s associate conductor, Miguel Harth-Bedoya, and the popular Argentine American composer Osvaldo Golijov, whose first association with the Philharmonic was as composer-in-residence working with high school students, a program Knussen set up.
She left the Philharmonic in 2000 and returned to London last year to resume her broadcasting career. In addition to her husband, she is survived by a daughter, Sonya, of London; her mother, Anita Freedman, of Portsmouth; and a brother, Richard Freedman, of Santa Fe, N.M.
Memorial services are being planned in Los Angeles, on the East Coast and in London.