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Oliver Knussen knows the monsters well

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LONDON — It’s a problematic afternoon, and I’m late to meet the British composer and conductor Oliver Knussen at Royal Albert Hall. Torrential downpours have flooded parts of the Underground, and everywhere wild things are gearing up for the annual Notting Hill Carnival, which typically ends with a drunken riot and a couple of stabbings. Sane people stay away from all the ruckus.

When I finally arrive, Albert Hall is, on the other hand, relatively sedate. Knussen’s rehearsal with the BBC Symphony for the evening Proms program he will conduct has finished. But we can hear the outside thunder in the hall, and it is a ruckus I have come to ask him about. Weeks hence (Oct. 11 to 14) in Walt Disney Concert Hall, Gustavo Dudamel will conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic and soloists in Knussen’s opera, “Where the Wild Things Are,” with live interactive video capturing Maurice Sendak’s original illustrations from his children’s classic.

Although he doesn’t look it, Knussen, 60, was once a wild thing himself. He is a large man with graying beard — bear-like is the usual description — and a bum knee that is requiring him to use a cane. He is one of the most celebrated of today’s British composers, a popular and an influential teacher who has molded at least two generations of composers in Britain and, often teaching in the U.S., at Tanglewood.

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As we sit in the cavernous, circular 5,544-seat hall, which fills nightly for the Proms, the world’s largest classical music festival, Knussen points to a high row of seats. His father, Stuart, was principal bass of the London Symphony, and Knussen, who began composing at 6, says that around that time he would often sit in on Proms rehearsals if his dad was playing.

“When I would get bored, usually with 18th century music,” he recalls, “my thing was to go behind the boxes here and run all the way around and back again. Constantly. It was like a huge playpen.”

Surely someone who treated Royal Albert Hall as a personal playpen might seem fated to write the best pair of children’s operas of our time (Knussen’s “Higglety Pigglety Pop!” is a companion work to “Wild Things”). Except that they are not really what some might consider children’s operas. The music is complex and includes plenty to intrigue a musical insider. The L.A. Phil has even issued a warning stating that this will not be a “kid’s” concert and that children should be brought at parents’ discretion. “All patrons, regardless of age,” the orchestra asserts on its website, “must sit quietly through the performance.”

On the other hand, this is “Wild Things,” an exceptionally vivid realization of Sendak’s account of the young boy Max, who throws a tantrum, is sent to bed without supper and who is visited by irascible, if endearing, monsters.

Knussen says that even though children are occasionally mystified that Max is sung by a soprano, to his knowledge no kids have ever complained about the type of music in “Wild Things.”

“But a hell of a lot of grown-ups have,” he notes dryly. “Especially music teachers. ‘How can you expect children to take in this sort of thing?’ they will ask.

“Well, it’s simple. They take it in the way they take stuff in at the movies.”

Whether Knussen was born to write “Wild Things” or not, he was obviously fated to. That story begins in summer 1975, when the young composer went to Tanglewood to sit in on classes taught by French composer Olivier Messiaen.

“At one point someone I didn’t know came up to me at a concert and said, ‘Are you interested in writing an opera?’” Knussen begins.

“I said, ‘Do you always ask people questions like that?’ and he replied, ‘Actually I’ve been casting around. Can you meet for lunch in the cafeteria tomorrow?’

“His name was Mike Miller. He was the son of Mitch Miller [whose ‘Sing Along With Mitch’ was popular on TV in the ‘60s]. There were only two or three pieces of mine he could have heard in Boston around that time, and I have to say, for the life of me, I would have never thought, ‘Oh, he’d be a good person to write an opera.’

“Anyway we met at the cafeteria, and he tipped a whole bag of books out on the table, and they were Maurice’s books. I’m too old to have grown up with them, but as it happened they’d caught my eye in a bookstore a few weeks before.”

Sendak wanted to write an opera and Miller told Knussen to call him up right away. “I said, ‘No, I’m not calling him up. It’s like calling up Bernstein and saying I want to be a conductor.’”

So a few weeks later Sendak (who died five months ago) called Knussen and “a timid little voice on the phone with a stammer asked what I thought was the best children’s opera ever written?”

“I said, ‘Second act of “Boris Godunov.”’ He said, ‘Right answer.’ And we hit it off from there.”

It was a strange friendship, given that Knussen was a budding young modernist and Sendak musically conservative. “I still don’t understand how somebody like that would have trusted so young a composer. I was 23 or 24 years old. I sent him a tape of various bits and bobs, and now that I know Maurice, I can’t imagine what he must have made of them.

“One of the New York FM stations at time went over to playing only contemporary music. But they had to stop it because various people protested. And Maurice was one of them.”

“Wild Things” got off to a shaky start. Knussen, a perfectionist who doesn’t always meet deadlines, was late with his score for the 1980 premiere in Brussels. Neither Knussen nor Sendak had done anything for the theater before, and the composer describes the Brussels experience as ghastly.

“We had the extremely stupid conception that the singers would be inside the monster costumes and we had very carefully arranged it so that they didn’t have to stay within the costumes for longer than 10 or 15 minutes. So we put in an interval which we thought would give the singers time to cool down and take the monster costumes off.

“In fact, they didn’t have time to take the costumes off, so they were just sweating to death. They wanted to kill us.”

Sendak, who had his neurotic side, also discovered how theater can bring out your worst nightmares. “Maurice,” Knussen remembers, “said of the mother scene with these giant vacuum cleaners and things, ‘I shouldn’t have written it, I forgot my whole first year of analysis.’”

But over the next couple of years, the score was finally finished and polished, and it received a rapturous reception in concert performance in London. “Higglety Pigglety Pop!” followed, and the double bill began getting productions all over, including one by Los Angeles Opera in 1990.

Knussen describes “Wild Things” as essentially a pageant in the tradition of Ballet Russes, Serge Diaghilev’s company that was responsible for the premieres in Paris of many early 20th classics, such as Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” and Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloé,” the works Knussen says he particularly liked when he was a child.

“The wonderful thing,” he explains, “is that now because of the computer technology, they can animate all this, including the extremely elaborate cross-hatching that Maurice does. Effectively you do see, for example, a monster 10 feet in the air. Netia Jones [the director, designer and video artist] is very faithful to the book but also very imaginative in what she’s chosen from the book.

“Sendak basically gave her carte blanche, which he didn’t do with many people.”

For Knussen, her productions of “Wild Things,” and “Higglety, Pigglety Pop!,” which Jones has also animated, are “as near as you can be in sync with the music. It feels like they’ve finally gotten out on their own feet.”

Which means that Knussen has one fewer excuse for avoiding pressing deadline issues. He’s missed a lot lately, including a small piano for Peter Serkin that was supposed to have been given at the Ojai Festival in 2005, when Knussen was music director but had to cancel his appearance because of abdominal surgery. Then there was a cello concerto commissioned by the L.A. Phil for Anssi Karttunen that was scheduled for a 2008 Disney premiere. It’s not finished either.

Knussen says that after the evening’s Proms concert, in which he conducted a ravishing performance of Debussy’s rarely heard complete “Martyrdom of St. Sebastian,” he’s basically holing up until spring and composing. First, he has a symphonic Adagio to write for the Philadelphia Orchestra premiere in February. It is a tribute to Leopold Stokowski, who was a family friend as well as a mentor to Knussen. Then, he hopes to finally finish the concertos.

“We’ll just see what happens,” he says with a shrug. “I’ve learned that sometimes it goes very quickly, and sometimes it just doesn’t happen at all.”

But when Knussen does finish a piece, it is built to last. His most recent works, including his Violin Concerto, “Requiem: Songs for Sue” (in memory of his late wife, a former education director of the L.A. Phil) and the solo piano piece, “Ophelia’s Last Dance,” are mature works, exquisitely made and profound. In the British newspaper the Guardian this week, Andrew Clements called this music that “ranks among the finest composed in this country in recent decades.”

“I guess one of the nice things about turning 60,” Knussen concludes, “is that instead of getting angry with one’s self, which makes things worse, about this problem of getting things done, I’m starting to have just a little bit of acceptance that that’s just the way one is.”

mark.swed@latimes.com


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