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New Classical Tracks: Going Downtown with Shostakovich

The Knights
Minnesota Public Radio

By Valerie Kahler

St. Paul, Minn. — Dmitri Shostakovich, a New York club setting and an unconventional classical band make for an intriguing mix.

Whether you share Nietzsche's worldview or not, you've got to admit that the guy was a master at coming up with a great bumper-sticker quote. "That which does not kill us makes us stronger," or "I would believe only in a God that knows how to dance."

Here's one that struck a chord with Dmitri Shostakovich: "Art is there to stop reality from destroying us."

A new CD featuring cellist Jan Vogler and the New York ensemble The Knight brings the art of Shostakovich to the reality of a New York club, Le Poisson Rouge. The recording is complete with hundreds of patrons so gung-ho to hear the concert (and ensure a great recording) that they cheerfully gave up ice in their drinks and air conditioning in the club.

No whirring, less clinking, but plenty of whooping and whistling and altogether un-concert hall-like sounds.

For example, when's the last time you heard Jimi Hendrix at a classical concert? While Kyle Sanna's transcription of "Machine Gun" by Hendrix features some fine shredding from Jan Vogler and the rest of the crew, it seems more the kind of piece which is best experienced live.

The other selections on the recording don't suffer from that restriction. Instead, they come across as the intimate, jaunty pieces you imagine Shostakovich might have played with his friends, ash dangling dangerously from those careless 1950s cigarettes and bottles of vodka close at hand.

There's an element to the waltzes that, depending on your frame of mind or frame of reference, can be felt as charmingly tipsy or subtly malevolent (like clowns at the carnival). They're just slightly off-balance.

But, The Knights and cellist Jan Vogler are okay with making us feel off-balance. The Knights are not quite three dozen strong, making them roughly one-third the size of the symphony orchestra at its fullest complement.

This size affords the band the opportunity to explore both chamber repertory and symphonic literature. In fact, one of the stated goals of The Knights is to "expand the idea of what an orchestra can be." They want to approach the entire classical music canon, plus jazz and rock & roll, with the vibe of an intimate chamber group.

When Jan Vogler first heard the band, he knew he'd found his partners for this CD. "The Knights bring together all that is important today: they are stylistically enormously versatile, yet trained to perfection," he said. "They can do it all, from Vivaldi to Elliott Carter."

That kind of versatility is important when it comes to Shostakovich. The First Cello Concerto is one of the pieces he wrote after Stalin died, a time when you'd think he might have been under a bit less state scrutiny.

But, he was still under the microscope, still required to be circumspect in what he could say. Any personal political apprehension had to be couched in musical terms. And it's hard to miss the fretfulness in this concerto.

Most recordings use a larger orchestra for the work, making for plenty of volume and bombast, but The Knights' more minimalist forces seem to add an element of urgency, and are a pointed reminder of the importance of the individual in any great undertaking, whether musical or political.

Back in 2006, during the celebrations of what would have been the composer's 100th birthday, I read one headline that said Shostakovich "got lost in his own autobiography" - an indication that the coverage had focused so much on his turbulent relationship with the Soviet state that his greatest gift, music, was overlooked in the bustle.

Even with that music front and center, it's difficult not to sense the politics: the anxiety mixed with parody. Music plus history makes for a fascinating combination, but the music alone tells just as dynamic a story.

Hat-tip to cellist Jan Vogler and The Knights, for bringing Shostakovich to the hipster crowd at Le Poisson Rouge, and for preserving the concerts on CD so the rest of us could have a small taste.