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By Dorothy Andries
American composer Aaron Copland wrote "Appalachian Spring" in 1944 for a ballet by Martha Graham using a 13-piece chamber orchestra. The score, with its elegant arrangement of the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts," won a Pulitzer Prize for Copland the following year, and later the composer re-orchestrated the music for larger ensembles.
That rarely heard original arrangement will be played this evening Sept. 2 in the Martin Theatre at Ravinia Festival by The Knights, a New York City-based classical orchestra making its festival debut.
"We're interested in music of the new world," said Eric Jacobsen. He is conductor of the orchestra, which includes about 30 graduates of the Juilliard, Curtis, Manhattan, Mannes and Eastman schools of music. "We are from the new world ourselves and we're interested in music written in the Americas, especially starting in the 1930s. And for Ravinia we've put together a super-fun program."
The evening will begin with a work by Gabriela Lena Frank, a California-born composer, whose Peruvian ancestry inspired her to travel to South America to study native music and folklore. The Knights will play her "Leyeandas: An Andean Walkabout." American John Adams, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his choral piece "On the Transmigration of Souls" commemorating the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, is represented by his work "Christian Zeal and Activity."
Two works by Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov, "Last Round" and "Doina and Lullaby," will be played. A piece by that composer was included in a concert at Ravinia Aug. 20 given by Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble. The final work on the Knights' program will be selections from Leonard Bernstein's Broadway hit "West Side Story." Both Bernstein and Copland are being celebrated during Ravinia's 2010 season, marking 20 years since their deaths.
The orchestra is interested in a collaborative, rather than a top-down authoritarian approach to performance. "We do our program the way we live our lives," Jacobsen said. "We choose certain pieces because of the way they make us feel. And we talk together about why we want to play a particular piece."
The Knights was founded in 2004, but Jacobsen and some of his classmates from the Juilliard School's class of 2004 had already been playing together before graduation. With them was his bother Colin, Juilliard class of 1999, who is now one of the ensemble's two concertmasters. "You might say that we were the closest thing to a classical garage band, except that we were at a house on Long Island," he said, laughing. "We'd get together on a Saturday night and read chamber music from 10 p.m. until the sun came up at 6 a.m. We'd spend 25 hours rehearsing a Beethoven symphony. We have a wild love for music and the community developed around that."
That intensity of the players' involvement is palpable, according to Henry Fogel, past president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and now dean of Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. In a review of a concert in New York City several seasons back, he wrote "the evening resembled nothing so much as a jam session amongst friends, which we in the audience were allowed to feel a part of. It was not unlike the experience of a jazz club, despite the formality of a concert hall setting."
Jacobsen describes the orchestra's atmosphere as "comfortable not competitive." And he even believes the name of his group gives a clue to its musical environment. "A knight searches for truth," he said. "We are on a quest to go as far as we can to translate a composer to our audience."
And to give them a chance to hear what Aaron Copland first wrote for that famous Martha Graham ballet.