The Knights Ensemble Storms New York's Le Poisson Rouge

09.09.10
The Knights
Strings

Hendrix, Ives-for this chamber orchestra, it's all fair game.

By SCOTT ROSE

Addressing the audience at Greenwich Village's hip nightclub Le Poisson Rouge in May, the Knights' violinist Colin Jacobsen jests apropos his cello-playing sibling Eric Jacobsen, the chamber ensemble's conductor. "He's my younger brother, so there was a time when I could dominate him," Colin says. "Now that he's up front, waving his arms around, that's not so easy to do."

The large chamber ensemble's soiree is in celebration of its latest CD, New Worlds. First released earlier this year in Germany, the album is anchored by two American landmark compositions: Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring and Charles Ives' The Unanswered Question. Also included are Osvaldo Golijov's Last Round, Antonín Dvorák's Silent Woods and Gabriela Lena Frank's Leyendas; An Andean Walkabout.

It's the latest work from the New York City collective that in the past year has recorded two Sony label albums in support of cellist Jan Vogler, with tracks ranging from Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1 to Jimi Hendrix's "Machine Gun."

In preparation for the group's May record release party at New York's Le Poisson Rouge, a warm-hearted and family-like, if serious-minded, atmosphere, continues as the Knights demonstrate their rehearsal method with a passage from the first movement of Schubert's Third Symphony: these musicians do not assemble intending to submit to the premeditated artistic will of a chef d'orchestre. Their interpretations, rather, evolve out of ongoing, open conversations.

 

This particular evening, one string player suggests that in the Schubert passage under rehearsal, an accompanimental figure in the strings could aurally be conceived as a piano supporting a "lied" sung by the oboe. A French hornist later argues that the articulation of his part is of expressive consequence. "If I play with a thick legato," the French horn player says, "the strings seem bogged down. When I let up a bit there, though, the overall accompaniment more lightly and therefore more appropriately cushions the singing oboe line. The strings actually sound different, depending on what I'm doing."

At the final run-through, refinements achieved communally during the rehearsal result in greater buoyancy and songfulness in the passage.

Maestro Jacobsen's leadership in performance, though, is in no way superfluous. Essentially, the Knights rehearse according to a model set by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, yet look to their conductor to bolster interpretive cohesiveness in concert. "To prepare for Appalachian Spring," Jacobsen says, "I studied the score intensively, down to its finest details. I easily spent 100 hours scrutinizing and internalizing that composition. Copland imbued his music with a distinctively American sound-that's why Appalachian Spring is central to our New Worlds CD. Working on it with the Knights was a revelatory process."

Critical reception has been enthusiastic. Reviewing the Knights' live performance of Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony for the New York Times, Allan Kozinn called Jacobsen "an interpretive dynamo."

Following a September program at the Caramoor 2010 International Music Festival with Yo-Yo Ma as soloist, the ensemble will tour Germany in October with frequent collaborator Vogler. For New Worlds, Vogler plays the solo part of Dvorák's Silent Woods on his Domenico Montagnana "ex-Hekking" 1721 cello.

The impetus for New Worlds, actually, sprang from Vogler and the Knights making music together at the 2009 Dresden Music Festival. A previous recording, Jan Vogler and The Knights, Experience; Live from New York, made at Le Poisson Rouge, included Shostakovich's challenging Cello Concerto, No. 1, in Eb major, Op. 107, and, among other works, an aforementioned arrangement of "Machine Gun" by rock-guitar icon Hendrix, who had played in the venue when it was the fabled Village Gate.

That track wasn't a one-off tribute to a musician from outside the classical cannon-the Knights are steadily nourished by involvement with non-Classical music. For instance, Himno de Zampoñas, the second section of composer Gabriela Lena Frank's Leyendas, employs strings to evoke the sounds of an Andean panpipe band. The effect, achieved through an idiosyncratic scoring of double-stops, is hypnotically alluring. Osvaldo Golijov's Last Round is a vibrant homage to the tango culture of his native Argentina.

As a measure of the interest the Knights have excited, New York City's main classical radio station, WQXR, recently featured New Worlds as its album of the week. "We love what we do," Jacobsen says, "and hope our passion for the music we perform is transmitted to our audiences."