Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Knights Charge Through Central Park

The NY Phil may have abdicated Central Park to a considerably younger and somewhat smaller orchestra, but classical music there this summer is just as alive and well as ever courtesy of the Naumburg Bandshell series and especially the Knights. Their conductor Eric Jacobsen explained beforehand that last night’s theme would be Schubert and Liszt (this being the Liszt bicentenary and Schubert being one of his favorites), liveliness and fun bookending more pensive, complex, often pained reflections. As usual, WQXR’s Midge Woolsey emceed; the beginning and end, and interestingly enough, the high point of the concert all being staples of the QXR rotation for decades.

Schubert’s Overture to Rosamunde was first, Jacobsen’s crisply serious approach imbuing its “Italianate” tropes i.e. buffoonery with something approaching gravitas. Liszt’s At the Grave of Richard Wagner was, well, Wagnerian and schmaltzy. But the orchestra was absolutely at the top of their game throughout three new arrangements of old songs. Schubert’s Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel was given an appropriately swirling ambience via Ljova Zhurbin’s orchestration, while another Schubert piece, The Brook’s Lullaby seemed like more of a fleshed-out folk song, a particularly bittersweet one. Liszt’s Freudvoll Und Leidvoll was done, maybe as should be expected, with even more grandeur, Jacobsen rejoining the ensemble on the podium.

The highlights were an absolutely stunning, cinematic take on Liszt’s “symphonic poem” From the Cradle to the Grave, ending as plaintively and bucolically as it began, with a lifetime’s worth of regret and occasional fireworks in between. Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, an orchestral warhorse if there ever was one, was done freshly and dynamically, from that unforgettable, almost cruelly poignant, chromatic opening movement, through the alternately wary and lushly nocturnal waltz themes which follow, through what in this group’s hands seemed to be a completely unexpected, ebullient second movement. They closed with Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody, which seemed underdone for awhile. But Jacobsen had something up his sleeve! Woooooo! the orchestra intoned, and the race was on, complete with stone-cold, deadpan false endings and a rattletrap rollercoaster of a coda that had everybody holding onto their seats, metaphorically speaking at least. The Knights are on a roll lately: they’ll be QXR’s first-ever artists in residency, with a marathon four days of performances including one simulcast from the Greene Space the evening of September 18 featuring music of Ginastera, Golijov, Schubert and Russell Platt.

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August 23, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brave New and Old Works by the Knights in Central Park

Transcending any kind of “indie classical” typecasting, symphony orchestra the Knights tackled a tremendously ambitious program Monday night at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park and pulled it off mightily. Composer Lisa Bielawa introduced the world premiere of her Templehof Etude, taking care to explain how it was an etude for her, not the orchestra. In addition to her substantial body of work for orchestra and smaller ensembles, Bielawa is a pioneer in the use of outdoor sonics and settings for classical and new-music ensembles. She’s orchestrated surreal conversations overheard on the street, and explored the possibilities created between roving audiences – and sometimes roving musicians – in public spaces. This particular piece is a prototype for Bielawa’s most ambitious project yet, a grand-scale work scheduled to debut in the fall of 2012 on the grounds of the Berlin park that was once the Templehof airport, the Berlin Wall airlift’s final destination [she explains this with typical diligence and grace in this New York Times piece].

And it didn’t sound anything like a typical etude, either. Knowing the backstory helped. Conductor Colin Jacobsen led the ensemble through a memorably direct, bright, brassy DID YOU SEE THAT exchange across a runway that took on a staggered echo effect with the strings and timpani whirling in – airlift to the rescue? Rich with suspense, a bracing passage of horror-film atmospherics playfully pushed aside by a bassoon, hypnotic counterpoint and a blustery, crescendoing overture, it was as catchy as it was lushly arranged.

The orchestra brought it down from there with a Morton Feldman piece dedicated to his late piano teacher. Quietly ambient atonal layers shifted slowly behind an incessant cuckoo motif that seemed to be an inside joke: was his teacher a cuckoo fan? Did she have a favorite clock, maybe?

Then they played Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Jacobsen explained unassumingly to emcee Midge Woolsey that he’d always wanted to conduct it: its humanity, he said, was what strikes him the most. How do you tackle something so iconic, something that’s become part of so many classical music fans’ DNA…and a potential minefield for performers? The Knights did it fast, and precisely, and guilelessly, letting the joy resound, crisply: this was party music. And if the piece is part of your DNA, how do you experience it as an audience member? Pondering how the sonics of the birdcalls all around and airplanes overhead might fit with the music? By watching the shadowplay of the musicians on the bandshell’s back wall, or the bird overhead on its way home to the roof? Could its wings have been keeping time with the music? No. A strong bloody mary came in useful here. There should be a Beethoven’s Fifth drinking game: drink for every false ending, chug every time the meter changes.

Beethoven probably came up with da-da-da-DA in 1804, a long time before his most paradigm-shifting stuff. Knowing the backstory, it’s easy to close your eyes and imagine it’s Haydn in the courtly second movement. But when the endless series of conclusions kicks in, it could only be Beethoven, and this time you’re at the bar, and he’s needling you. And he’s having fun too. And it’s impossible not to smile back.

Special thanks to Martha Sullivan, singer and composer of symphonic music for organ, and to Gail Wein, bassoonist and impresario to the stars, for their insight and good company.

June 22, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment