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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Playful and Pensively Picturesque Themes with the Knights at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park

Last night at the Naumburg Bandshell was the second performance of the summer by irrepressible, shapeshifting orchestra the Knights. It wasn’t as deviously thematic as their first night here last month, where they paired Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata with Janacek’s String Quartet No. 1, “Kreutzer Sonata.” In a more general sense, yesterday evening’s theme was pastiches, both musical and visual.

The group opened with the world premiere of a collaboration between several of their members, Keeping On, whose genesis dates back a few years to when they were messing around with a famous Beethoven riff during practice.

Fast forward to the 2020 lockdown: conductor Colin Jacobsen pondered what John Adams might have done with it, then emailed his sketch to members of the orchestra – which disgraced Governor Andrew Cuomo had infamously put on ice – and asked for their contributions. Several sent theirs back; horn player Mike Atkinson wove them together into a contiguous whole. The famous, fateful riff eventually revealed itself midway through; otherwise, it was a characteristically entertaining little work, from its insistent, minimalist intro to a series of briskly crescendoing phrases making their way around the orchestra, Carl Nielsen style, then bells from the percussion section and hip-hop-influenced vocal harmonies from violinist Christina Courtin and flutist Alex Sopp! An insider orchestral joke that translates to general audiences, who would have thought?

Violin soloist Lara St. John then joined them for the New York premiere of Avner Dorman‘s Violin Concerto No. 2, Nigunim, based on a series of traditional Jewish melodies. The opening Adagio Religioso rose from a hazy theme in the hauntingly chromatic freygische mode to a brief, somber stateliness, then St. John immediately slashed her way through her first cadenza. The pregnant pause afterward was a striking setup for the otherworldly drift and then the undulatingly acidic dance afterward, St. John’s razorwire waltz sailing overhead.

Her fleeting, ghostly incisions flitted over a mist as the second movement got underway, the orchestra almost imperceptibly returning to the astringency and chromatic bite of the previous interlude. Their leap into a suspensefully pulsing klezmer dance was irresistibly fun; St. John led the procession back to disquieting close harmonies and strangely celestial harmonics radiating throughout the string section, up to a jaunty coda.

She and a handful of the string players then surprised the crowd by literally dancing through a lightning-fast, wryly harmonically-infused jam on a traditional klezmer dance.

After the intermission, they concluded with an insightfully picturesque take of Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony. A Bach-like somberness pervaded the anthemic, initial andante movement, underscoring how much that rugged coastline had impacted a 20-year-old urban Jewish classical rockstar. The brief, massed stilletto passages from the brass were all the more impressive considering that this was an outdoor show, although by half past eight the temperature had dropped to a perfect mid-seventies calm.

The luscious textural contrast between the midrange brass and strings fell away for a ragged run through the goofy country dance that introduced movement two: a moment of sarcasm, maybe? Whatever the case, it worked with the crowd.

The somber lushness of the adagio third movement was inescapable: it’s one thing to credit the young composer for his balance of brass, winds and strings throughout moody and occasionally portentous, martial themes, but the orchestra nailed them, one by one. The succession of Mozartean motives and punchy Germanic phrases on the way out – and deftly executed melismas from the strings – wound it up with a characteristic ebullience.

The final Naumburg Bandshell concert in Central Park this summer is on August 2 at 7:30 PM with self-conducted string ensemble the East Coast Chamber Orchestra playing works by Adolphus Hailstork, Peruvian themes arranged by Maureen Nelson and the group’s arrangement of Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, “Death and the Maiden.” Take the 72nd St. entrance; get there an hour early, at least, if you want a seat.

July 27, 2022 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Knights Make History With Beethoven and Janacek at the Naumburg Bandshell

Last night at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park was a welcome return for one of New York’s most enduring cosmopolitan traditions. This was a particularly clever installment. It’s been done before: pairing Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata with Janacek’s String Quartet No. 1, “Kreutzer Sonata.” A Naumburg Concert favorite, chamber orchestra the Knights worked several levels of meta with new symphonic arrangements of both: the former a chart by violinist Colin Jacobsen, the latter a collaboration between his brother Eric and Knights horn player Mike Atkinson.

Orchestral scores for both works go back as far as Tschaikovsky, who did it with Beethoven. Likewise, there have been plenty of programs pairing both of the original pieces. But yesterday evening’s concert might have been the first time two orchestral versions of both have been played on the same bill. It turned out to be as colorful as expected, considering the ensemble’s penchant for surprise.

They opened with a Colin Jacobsen piece, playfully titled Kreutzings, rising from dizzyingly dissociative layers through jaunty microtonal glissandos from around the ensemble, to a coyly contrapuntal waltz. Flickers of each of the night’s main composers bubbled to the surface occasionally as the strings joined in precise, steady eighth notes while winding their way out.

Jacobsen, celebrating his birthday, served as soloist in the Beethoven. Crisp, elegant cheer interchanged with a little suspense and a bustling freshness that veered toward the raw side in the opening movement, confirming how well this material lends itself to orchestral sweep and majesty. Jacobsen quickly went for silkiness and ran with it amid anxious Vivaldiesque counterpoint. The restless thicket of low strings toward the end was a particularly juicy moment for the orchestra to sink their teeth into.

As if by design, a passing airplane introduced the andante second movement, bubbly woodwinds picking up the pace considerably before Jacobsen took over with a fine-toothed staccato. The bristling energy never dissipated, through lushness and a coyly pulsing bounce beneath the violinist’s spirals, flurries and animated pizzicato. Interestingly, the finale was on the spare and restrained side, despite the velocity: an urbane party that earned a contrastingly raucous standing ovation.

After the intermission, the ensemble tackled Anna Clyne’s Stride. Echoing the concert’s opening number, fleeting hints of Beethoven percolated amid tense close harmonies and microtones over a striding tempo flecked with rather suspenseful lulls and a long trajectory up to an anthemic, Dvorakian coda. Clyne doesn’t usually go for fullscale High Romantic: turns out she excels at it. This was a revelation.

Janacek’s first quartet follows the drama and familial mischegas of the Tolstoy tale, giving us an extra level of meta. Furtive Balkan chromatics quickly receded for an aching lushness and unexpected pageantry in the opening movement, only to reappear in a tensely gripping, Bernard Herrmann vein. Giving the anxious conversation in the third movement to the woodwinds paid magnificently poignant dividends on the way to an equally memorable stampede out. The ensemble encored with flutist Alex Sopp leading the group through a lickety-split, buoyant arrangement of a Taraf de Haidoucks Romany dance tune.

For those who missed the concert, the Knights managed to record the Beethoven and Janacek in February 2020, just under the wire before the fateful events that would crush the world a few weeks later. The next Naumburg Bandshell concert is on June 28 at 7:30 PM with the Handel and Haydn Society, led by violinist Aisslinn Nosky, playing works by Corelli, Vivaldi, Geminiani, Handel and Charles Avison.

June 15, 2022 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Classical and Rock Acts Shake Off the Rust at the Naumburg Bandshell

It was weird seeing a rock band onstage at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park last night. There hasn’t been any rock there since the early teens, when some promoter put on a stupefyingly awful disco night. Then again, it wasn’t always unusual for rock acts to play there: it happened a lot back in the 90s.

Twenty years earlier, the Grateful Dead did a show there. Now that must have been weird.

There were other aspects relating to yesterday evening’s show that seemed weird. But most of them were welcome, and reason for guarded optimism at a time when we desperately need it.

The rock band onstage was singer/guitarist Aoife O’Donovan and her low-key rhythm section. She was joined by a chamber orchestra subset of the Knights for a tersely symphonic, imaginatively arranged take of what seemed to a suite inspired by early 20th century suffragette Carrie Chapman Catt. Although O’Donovan’s roots are in Americana, and she was playing acoustic, the songs had more of a classic 60s pop feel, sometimes in a Jimmy Webb or Lee Hazelwood vein. O’Donovan’s work has never been more political, or relevant than this, another welcome development.

A number that quoted from a letter to Catt from then-President Woodrow Wilson had a mutedly rich, brass-infused chart. O’Donovan then led the ensemble into syncopated, Joni Mitchell-esque territory and closed with a more enigmatic, indie rock-flavored number. O’Donovan has obviously done her homework and is encouraging everyone to rise up and fight: a rousing amen to that.

The Knights shook off the rust of over a year of inactivity with conductor Eric Jacobsen leading them through a haphazard take of his arrangement of Kayhan Kalhor‘s exhilarating, Kurdish-tinged theme Ascending Bird. The way the low strings emulated the starkness and shivery intensity of an Iranian kamancheh was a tasty touch. The (presumably) new presence of brass and woodwinds seemed forced, and extraneous to the music’s ecstatic trajectory.

The orchestra left the bumps in that road behind for a sleek and empathetic version of George Walker’s Lyric For Strings, whose canonic cadences evoked the Barber Adagio with less angst, more fondness, and somewhat more modernist tonalities.

Violinist Gil Shaham joined them for the night’s coda, playing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61 from memory. This may have been just another day at the office for him, but the technique he put to use was just plain sizzling. Which is not to say that this piece sizzles per se: it’s a carefully orchestrated celebration. Needless to say, Shaham’s quicksilver vibrato, the quartz crystal solidity of the endless volleys of high harmonics, and his unassailably confident attack in the most robust moments reaffirmed his vaunted stature.

The first movement seemed fast, at least in the beginning, the orchestra clearly relishing the opportunity to reconnect with their soloist since they’d recorded this together a couple of years ago. The second movement was unusually muted and practically a lullaby in places. The conclusion, with its rounds of triumphant, anthemic riffage, ended the night on an aptly ebullient note. There was no encore.

In a stroke of serendipity, this was the day when Andrew Cuomo apparently caved to the pressure to relinquish some of the dictatorial powers he’d seized in the March 16, 2020 coup d’etat – presumably to give a last-gasp shot of hydroxychloroquine to a political career that’s on a vent and flatlining. The details are still shaking out. It’s not unreasonable to worry that the psy-op squads at the World Economic Forum, the Gates Foundation and the Bloomberg cartel, who have been pulling Cuomo’s strings over the past sixteen months, will attempt to sneak all sorts of New Abnormal surveillance or divide-and-conquer schemes into any so-called reopening plan.

Because the concert was arranged before yesterday’s unexpected events, the organizers had been giving out free tickets online. Trouble was, the ticketing system didn’t work. An anxious message at their webpage timidly asked for proof of needle of death or meaningless PCR test, presumably to satisfy Cuomo’s office: this isn’t the kind of demand the Naumburg organization, who have always been the epitome of genteel, would typically impose on an audience.

While ticketed patrons were being let into the seats – which never came close to reaching capacity – there was clearly no surveillance going on. As far as muzzle-mania goes, oxygen-deficient people generally took the seats, those of us breathing normally situated mostly in back. Standing five feet to the left of this blog’s owner was one of the world’s great cellists: she wasn’t muzzled, nor was one of the world’s great violists, a couple of paces behind her. Sea change, or sign of imminent New Abnormal apartheid? We’ll find out next time.

This year’s series of Naumburg Bandshell concerts continues on June 29 at 7:30 PM when the Ulysses and Emerson String Quartets team up for music by Shostakovich, Mendelssohn, Richard Strauss and others. Since tickets for the performance have already been issued, rushing to the space early to score a seat – a winning strategy in years past – may not be worth the effort. You will probably be better off standing, taking a place on the benches immediately to the south, or on the lawn to the west where the sound is still reasonably audible. Bring a picnic and some wine!

June 16, 2021 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

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