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Conduct Indefinable: Beethoven Here, Laura Nyro There

Eric Jacobsen, The Knights
The New York Times

New York is awash in freelance orchestras. But as young players pour out of conservatories, new ensembles continue to crop up, and the savviest of them have grasped the need to cultivate a distinctive image. The Knights, a young, energetic chamber orchestra formed by the cellist and conductor Eric Jacobsen and his brother, the violinist Colin Jacobsen, has been turning up with increasing frequency since 2006, as both a standard repertory ensemble and a new-music band.

The orchestra played both, in a way, at Washington Irving High School in the Flatiron district on Saturday evening, although the program’s new-music component required some qualification. Like many musicians in their 20s, the Knights seem to have little patience for categorization. They play atonalists, Minimalists and neo-Romantics as equals, and they make less of a distinction than their elders do between classical music and pop.

That eclecticism yielded an unusual but comfortable juxtaposition of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony and a set of folk, blues and jazz-influenced songs by Christina Courtin. Ms. Courtin, a singer and songwriter who has recorded an album for Nonesuch that is due in early 2009, is also a Juilliard-trained violinist and a member of the Knights. (Yes, she played in the Beethoven.)

Ms. Courtin’s music and her unaffected vocal style call to mind the soulful, atmospheric sound of the late 1960s: early Joni Mitchell at times, with an occasional touch of Laura Nyro and the vaguest hint of Janis Joplin. Her most striking songs are not simply strophic: her melodies tend to expand and develop (and send her voice higher in its range) rather than merely repeat. And she arranged her set with a sensible dramatic arc, moving from the quiet introspection of “Bundah” and “Rainy” to the more melodically wide-ranging, extroverted “February” and “Photograph.”

Eric Jacobsen was a deferential accompanist, adding a warm glow to the backing supplied by Ms. Courtin’s guitarist, Ryan Scott, and an accordionist, Rob Burger. But in the Beethoven, Mr. Jacobsen was an interpretive dynamo. With its consistently brisk tempos and spotlighted inner voices, the “Pastoral” Symphony was a modern city boy’s vision of the countryside: no dreamy dawdling here, just an oxygen-fueled romp painted in vivid hues.

That vigor, thankfully, did not tax the work’s beauty. The birds of the second movement sang sweetly (if quickly), and the orchestra played the thunderstorm for all its pounding heft, with the Shepherds’ Song as a refreshingly vital finale.

This article was originally published June 8, 2008.