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Performances by The Knights, A Far Cry and Neil Rolnick

01.13.11
The Knights
The New York Times

By Steve Smith

A large, lively audience braved a looming winter storm on Tuesday evening to hear the premiere of “New Ghetto Music” by Yotam Haber, presented by the Knights, a youthful, independent New York orchestra, at the Baryshnikov Arts Center During a 2008 residency at the American Academy in Rome, Mr. Haber uncovered a cache of tapes featuring Roman Jewish cantors recorded from the 1940s to the ’60s. For “New Ghetto Music” he drew on the penetrating emotional delivery he heard on the tapes, combining it with modern orchestral techniques and a bracing rawness inspired by tenores vocal traditions from Sardinia.

Featured in Mr. Haber’s piece was Christina Courtin, a Knights violinist and an admired indie-pop singer and songwriter, who sang her own lyrics and those of Barbara Ras, a contemporary poet. Ms. Courtin loosed her plaintive, affecting yelp in urgent, incantatory gushes over her frenetic fiddling. Behind her, vivacious, odd-metered dance rhythms paced a kaleidoscopic orchestral roil. The performance, ably conducted by Eric Jacobsen, had its rough spots, but intensity, exuberance and commitment more than compensated.

You could hardly imagine a more sympathetic context for “New Ghetto Music” than the program offered here. Gracious instrumental versions of two Schubert songs — “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” orchestrated by Lev Zhurbin (known as Ljova); and “Des Baches Wiegenlied,” reworked by the violinist Colin Jacobsen (the conductor’s brother) — preceded Mr. Haber’s work. After it, dance held sway in a pert account of Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella” Suite and the intoxicating whirl of “Ascending Bird,” a Persian folk melody arranged by Colin Jacobsen and Siamak Aghaei.