I reckon that during a lifetime you might be lucky enough to meet one person you could safely call a genius. And when I say genius I don’t mean someone who is adept at, say, kicking a football or cooking a risotto. I mean someone whose mind, skills and creativity are at a level the rest of us can only dream about.
I think I’ve been lucky enough to meet and even work with two. One is Carlos Kleiber, whom I’ve raved about before, and the other, who I hold even above Kleiber on the genius front, is sixty today. He is Oliver Knussen. Olly. The Olster, Master of All Things Ol.
Now, I can think of nothing more boring than me trying to describe why Olly is a genius. But it won’t stop me having a go. His music alone is enough, so transparent and yet so concentrated with detail. He may not have produced many works but they are extraordinarily rich in content, each like a fine silk cloth folded and compressed to the size of a napkin which when unravelled covers a whole table. As a conductor, he is extraordinary. Economical of gesture yet stunningly expressive, a dream to follow, unrivalled in his clarity and his ability to illuminate the trickiest of scores. As a colleague, especially to fellow composers, he is simply extraordinary; supportive and generous to a fault.
All that stuff is what you can read in any tribute. What makes Olly so adorable is that while he takes his work very seriously, any pretension of seriousness, of pomposity, makes him laugh. And what a laugh, his face folding in on itself, his massive frame wheezing in a gigantic chortle of joy.
I’m not up to the task of describing why Olly is so very beloved by those who are lucky enough to know him. And I don’t use the word “beloved” lightly. He really is loved, not least (or should that be “at the very least”?) by me.
There are so many Olly stories. There’s a rehearsal we were doing of Henze’s “Voices” where he gave a troublesome bass player a lesson on how to play some harmonics in the correct octave. There’s the time he asked a gorgeous Dutch keyboard player at the Hammond organ if she had “a swell box” (snigger, snigger). Best of all was a rehearsal in the Concertgebouw of his “Where The Wild Things Are”. A junior percussionist was making a bit of a fist of things during the final run and, unusually, Olly suddenly stopped the rehearsal during the Rumpus (and if you don’t know Olly’s music then for a taster, the Rumpus is a good place to start). There was a silence while Olly looked at the score and up at the percussionist, then back at the score and back at the percussionist. He made a chewing face, his baton still raised. Then he said “oh fuck it”, gave an upbeat and carried on.

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