CLASSICAL MUSIC / A safe pair of hands: Oliver Knussen was first taken to the Aldeburgh Festival as a child. Now he runs the place. Gillian Widdicombe reports

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Ollie was six when his father, a cantankerous bass player in the London Symphony Orchestra, took him to Aldeburgh and said: 'Ask that man if you can sit in on the rehearsal.' That man was Benjamin Britten, whose role as the composer / conductor running the Aldeburgh Festival has been filled by Oliver Knussen.

Now a hefty 42-year-old, Knussen is the most modest musician you can imagine. He has heaps to say - praise for fellow composers, such as Robert Saxton, Simon Bainbridge and Robin Holloway; regret that London has no concert hall like the Snape Maltings, where contemporary music sounds good; and affection for the legendary figures such as Britten and Walton who responded generously to his letters of precocious admiration.

But Knussen's charm is quiet, pragmatic, vulnerable even. He is an accomplished conductor, in whom a major record company is currently taking serious interest; but his technique is so self-effacing that audiences see only an efficient pair of hands waggling behind a torso as capacious as a Queen Anne Knussen would not claim to 'run' Aldeburgh; umpteen complicated trusts do that, and Knussen now shares the artistic directorship with Steuart Bedford, the conductor who worked on many Britten works with the composer. None the less, Knussen now makes the running at Aldeburgh; he has revived its reputation as a composers' festival, and has a knack for inventing good programmes.

'There are usually a couple of things I want to do personally,' he says, making the recipe for a good festival sound as easy as fish pie, 'a couple that Steuart wants to do, and a couple that we wanted to do last year, or artists we wanted, that didn't work out. These provide the backbone. I'm not keen on a thematic programme, that's a bore nowadays. But I do like to have little threads (this year it's the hostile relationship between Britten and Stravinsky) for those who want to look for them. I invite artists I'm fond of, such as Peter Serkin or Esa-Pekka Salonen, to do the sort of programmes they don't get a chance to do touring around.' He also likes it when someone rings from Aspen to say, 'I've just heard a terrific quartet, called the Transylvan' or 'There's this fantastic Yugoslav pianist, Pedja Muzijevic . . .'

The downside to that, however, is that it can be difficult to sell tickets for Pedja Muzijevic. 'You can never tell what's going to sell out,' Knussen says, 'or what will make the festival buzz. But we sold out the Maltings for Elliott Carter's Concerto for Orchestra.' Sold out? 'Yes, we did Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra in the first half. I said to Elliott, 'Do you mind?' And he said, 'No, you could call mine 'An Old Person's Guide to the Orchestra'.' '

Once the backbone of the next festival has been decided, Sheila Colvin, the general director of the Aldeburgh Foundation, does 'a lot of groundwork'. Then the three meet, with costs. Gloom? 'No, that's where the lateral thinking comes in,' says Knussen. 'The year we did the Tavener opera, which cost an awful lot, I had to go into overdrive, to invent interesting small things.' Last Saturday's orchestral concert, conducted by Knussen, was an excellent example of good planning. Knussen wanted to do two tough, late Stravinsky vocal works - Abraham and Isaac and the Requiem Canticles - so he began with Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, with Anthony Rolfe Johnson. As the packed audience recovered from Stravinsky in serial mode, Knussen turned round, rubbed his nose and announced that the Requiem Canticles was such a wonderful piece and so seldom heard, he intended to play it again. Only a few people left the hall, perhaps to order their Zimmer frames.

This morning, Sheila Colvin will be able to tell whether the 1994 festival has met its target. Her total budget this year is just under pounds 250,000, of which pounds 154,955 must come from the box-office - yesterday she was pounds 3,000 short. Balancing the books is easier because Knussen accepts that the festival can no longer afford professional orchestras for some adventurous programmes, such as last Saturday's orchestral concert, skilfully played by students from the Britten-Pears School. 'I was happy to do that programme as a course at the school,' says Knussen, 'because I could get more rehearsal time, and teaching students late Stravinsky - playing two mean, difficult notes that join up in some obscure way - would be a very good exercise.'

As a composer, Knussen has had his ups and downs. 'A lot of the stuff I wrote as a kid was in imitation of Britten, and I was very aware of it when I was doing my two operas for Glyndebourne. When Peter Pears came to Where the Wild Things Are, I said, 'Sorry about the bits from Midsummer Night's Dream,' and he said, 'I didn't hear those, my dear, I thought it was all Owen Wingrave.' There are a lot of technical things I learnt from Britten, but that's just part of one's musical background, like breathing. I've always thought, the more you know, the more you know what sea you're swimming in.'

After the Glyndebourne operas, Knussen suffered a musical breakdown which he likens to having a stroke. 'My big mistake was writing a second opera immediately after the first. If I'd had a year off between, things would have turned out rather differently. Also, because I tend towards very elaborate orchestral canvases with short durations, writing a full 100 minutes, for the two operas combined, practically wrote me out. I'll never forget sitting at Glyndebourne, with rehearsals going on, knowing this bit had to be done by three days from now, and not having a clue where it was going to come from. We stayed in a flat in Lewes overlooking the prison courtyard, and I felt very sympathetic. Then I had to stand up in public and conduct it]'

For two years he abandoned composition altogether, extending his links as a conductor with the London Sinfonietta. The only person who squeezed something out of him was Pierre Audi, then at the Almeida. 'Pierre would say, 'We need some incidental music for this play, who should we get?' Then I started writing little pieces for friends: an overture for Michael Tilson Thomas's first LSO concert, piano variations for Peter Serkin, songs for Lucy Shelton . . . so I've got half-a-dozen pieces which - touch wood] - I like.'

He thinks his music is now more intricate, more compact. When not conducting, he lives at Snape, having recently given up his three- months-a-year job as head of contemporary music activities at Tanglewood to return to composing. The fourth symphony awaits completion; Suntory has commissioned a horn concerto for Barry Tuckwell. His latest work tickles him pink: a 90-second piece for musical box written on the first two days of the festival, faxed to Ronald Forward in Amsterdam, who played it to Knussen's answerphone and recorded it for a CD the following day. 'I felt good about that,' he says, 'because I could still get it going. If you start looking at yourself too much in the mirror after a breakdown, you either find yourself too interesting or not interesting at all.'

The Aldeburgh Festival continues until Sunday evening (booking: 0728 453543)

(Photograph omitted)