Oliver ("Olly") Knussen, who recently turned 60, has been a previous co-director of the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music (FCM) and in other years an active participant (in 2008, for example, he came to the rescue of the centennial tribute to Elliott Carter that James Levine planned but couldn't play a part in). This year he was its guiding spirit and star: choosing what was played, including pieces of his work, and also conducting some of the major works.
No question that FCM's biggest hit was Knussen's second opera, also his second collaboration with the late Maurice Sendak, Higglety Pigglety Pop!, or There Must Be More to Life (performed in Sendak's memory). It's an eccentric work, a "children's opera" very much for grown-ups, in the tradition of Ravel's L'Enfant et les sortilèges, for which Colette wrote the libretto about a naughty child (and which returns to the BSO's subscription season in October). But it's even stranger. The hero is Sendak's Sealyham Terrier, Jennie, who was dying when he wrote the book, in 1967. Jennie wants to be an actress, a star, and although she has everything, she lacks experience. She gets it, and gets her wish.
Knussen's score is rich, complex, and variegated — the vocal lines more speech-inflected than purely lyrical, with orchestral interludes of brilliance and elegiac beauty, like the hauntingly melancholy scene with the Ash Tree. This concert version, sung by Tanglewood vocal fellows, with Stefan Asbury (another FCM stalwart) leading the large and impressive Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, put the gifted singers in costume (mezzo soprano Kate Jackman as Jennie and five others doing 10 other parts), with charming "live" animated projections by video designer Netia Jones. (Only complaint: the tiny supertitles were unreadable by most of the Ozawa Hall audience.)
Higglety Pigglety Pop!, on the penultimate FCM evening, was preceded by another orchestral marvel by a composer Knussen especially wanted to call to our attention, the largely neglected (in this country) Italian master Niccolo Castiglioni (1932-1996). Knussen himself conducted Castiglioni's third and final appearance of the weekend, Inverno In-Ver (something like "Truly Winter"), 11 short "musical poems" in which probably no note ever descends below middle C and which convey in countless subtle instrumental ways the icy-glassy-crystalline-prismatic-transparent qualities of the season (there's even a movement called "Silenzio"). It's consistently compelling, dazzlingly inventive, and even moving — never just gimmicky.
Knussen's selections emphasized his own British heritage and his taste for colorful and surprising music. There were four pieces by elder (born 1934) but still cheeky musical statesman Harrison Birtwistle, my favorite the exquisite Dinah and Nick's Love Song (1970) for unspecified instruments, here three oboes (one onstage and two on opposite sides of the second balcony) and harp. And two pieces each by outstanding younger composers, Helen Grime (whose work we've heard in Boston commissioned by the Gardner Museum and Peggy Pearson's Winsor Music — I especially liked her gorgeous Seven Pierrot Miniatures) and Luke Bedford, a protégé of Knussen's.
This summer's composer in residence was the remarkable, refined and unprolific George Benjamin (born 1960). On the last concert, Knussen led Benjamin's Duet (2008), a sort of piano concerto without violins (Peter Serkin the guest artist), mysteriously muted but intense, the piano lines startlingly simple and unharmonized, with major roles for heartbeat-like harp and timpani and distant trumpet (also muted), and ending with sudden brass outcries and pounding bass drum.