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Chamber Music With Muscle

Yo-Yo Ma, The Knights
The New York Times


WHEN the animated young conductor Eric Jacobsen takes the stage at the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in Katonah on Sept. 26, he will stand before some 45 musicians - an orchestra notably smaller than the ones that the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the evening's soloist, typically plays with when he performs the works that have been scheduled for his Caramoor appearance.

But Mr. Jacobsen's ensemble - the Knights - will bring to bear some advantages that the big orchestras, or even groups of its size, often lack. It has, Mr. Ma said, both a conductor who is "more like a catalyst than a dictator" and a "vibrant, energetic, collaborative culture" that is more common to small groups.

"I think what you're going to see is a chamber music experience in orchestral form," Mr. Ma said.

The concert is a highlight of Caramoor's second annual Fall Festival, a five-day affair that will include a set by the guitarist Bill Frisell, a solo turn by the singer Patti LuPone and works performed by alumni from Caramoor's mentoring programs. It also marks Mr. Ma's return to Caramoor after a decade, and at least his eighth appearance there since 1979, as well as the Knights' Caramoor debut.

The Knights' collaborative culture is no accident. Mr. Jacobsen said it had grown out of informal chamber music readings involving about 20 music students who, meeting regularly at the Long Island home of his parents, forged ties that the musicians have maintained since they formally established the orchestra five years ago.

"This leads to a very healthy relationship to the music," he said, especially its "social aspects."

The musicians' camaraderie extends to Mr. Ma. Though he has not played with the Knights as a group, he has developed relationships with some of the orchestra's members, including Mr. Jacobsen, 28, whom he has recruited for the Silk Road Project, his series of concerts and recordings meant to promote cultural interchange around the world.

The relationships reflect shared values, Mr. Ma said. They also mirror overlapping points of view about musical interpretation. In separate interviews, for example, both Mr. Jacobsen and Mr. Ma drew connections between Dvorak's use of nature-related themes in "Silent Woods" - a work on which Mr. Ma will solo at the concert - and the act of performing the piece in isolated, verdant settings like Caramoor.

"As a Brooklyn boy, I don't have any silent woods," Mr. Jacobsen said. "I can try to go to the very center of Prospect Park and maybe I won't hear the fire engines from Flatbush. But up in Caramoor the concept is much more realized."

Mr. Ma noted how Dvorak's affinity for nature had inspired "Silent Woods," and how players and audience alike could be similarly inspired when they hear the piece against a natural backdrop - a point that he said he might make when discussing the "imaginative experience of sensory music" at a family concert planned for the afternoon of Sept. 26.

"You try to break down walls," Mr. Ma said. "If you have an outdoor space, you are in essentially a wall-less environment and you're taking in the universe around you and you become very much part of that."

Breaking down cultural walls is a task that the Knights will undertake as they tackle a diverse selection of compositions, including, in addition to the Dvorak, Ives's "Unanswered Question," Ljova' s "Garmoshka," Golijov's "Night of the Flying Horses," Schubert's Symphony No. 3 and the other piece on which Mr. Ma will solo, Saint-Saëns's Cello Concerto No. 1.

But the cultural cross-fertilization will perhaps be most evident in the group's new arrangement of the Persian folk song "Ascending Bird," which will close the concert. The arrangement, which favors Western instruments, tries to catch "the spirit more than the letter" of the original, Mr. Jacobsen said. "Being able to modify it and embrace the character of the piece is what we wanted to do."

Similar motivations drive Mr. Frisell, whose trio will open the festival on the evening of Sept. 24. His treatment of a folk song often strays in tone and texture from the original, he said, even as it retains the piece's essence as he sees it at any given moment. Citing "Shenandoah," he said that the tune, in his hands, could one night "be this quiet, delicate thing" and the next night "be this massively loud, gigantic, bombastic thing."


"It depends on where it came from and where you're going," he said.

Like Mr. Jacobsen's relationships with his orchestra members, Mr. Frisell's bond with his band mates - Tony Scherr on bass and Rudy Royston on drums - is deep. He seldom plans a set list, though he allows that, apart from folk tunes like "Shenandoah," he favors popular and jazz standards like George Gershwin's "My Man's Gone Now," Thelonius Monk's "Misterioso" and John Lennon's "In My Life," or originals like "Strange Meeting."

On any of these tunes, Mr. Frisell can be expected to deploy the haunting electronics for which he is known - one aspect of a musical view that has generated wide notice for its expansiveness, even at a time when musicians cross genres at will. Recently, his electronics-laced outings in a string quartet have added to the attention and, he said, informed the work of the jazz trio he will bring to Caramoor - raising the prospect that his set could, like that of the Knights, offer something of a chamber music experience in another form.