Talent for Punctuating Classics With Surprises

06.24.11
The Knights
The New York Times

By Allan Kozinn

It is heartening to see a young, energetic group like the Knights become, in effect, the resident orchestra for the free summer concerts at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park.

Though often long on charm, the concerts, now in their 106th year, have not always been musically compelling. That began to change a few years ago, when the series — now run by Christopher W. London, whose great-grandfather, Elkan Naumburg, founded it in 1905 — started presenting inventive chamber ensembles like the Imani Winds.

Chamber music and jazz have since become important parts of the program. But orchestral music has traditionally been its core mission — officially, the programs are still called the Naumburg Orchestral Concerts — and the Knights, which opened the series on Monday evening and will close it on Aug. 22, is the only orchestra on the schedule.

To the extent that this ensemble has a formula, it is based on balancing new and unusual works with the most basic canonic classics. You don’t get more basic than Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which closed the group’s intermissionless program. But that was offset by a fresh piece by Lisa Bielawa and a short meditation by Morton Feldman.

Ms. Bielawa’s 17-minute “Tempelhof Étude” is a study for “Tempelhof Broadcast,” a large work Ms. Bielawa is writing for a Sept. 2012 performance at the former Tempelhof Airport (now a park) in Berlin. As she envisions it, “Tempelhof Broadcast” will involve more than 600 musicians, who will play without a conductor and be expected to make on-the-spot performance decisions.

It may not be as chaotic as it sounds: the étude begins with an inviting, fanfarelike passage that works its way through the brasses and woodwinds before morphing into hazy chordal blocks from which appealing melodies often emerge. There is a touch of Ives here: Tchaikovskian string writing weaves through more cheerful woodwind scoring and scratchy percussion sounds, with prominent musical figures (a birdcall of a piccolo line, for example) seeming to cue sudden shifts in mood and material.

How all this will sound when performed by a band roughly 12 times the size of the Knights is a big question, one of several Ms. Bielawa must be dealing with, but the prospect is promising.

Morton Feldman’s aphoristic, soft-spoken “Madame Press Died Last Week at 90” (1970) was a seminal work, one of his early experiments in quiet, focused textures. Eric Jacobsen led a taut, introspective reading that contrasted strikingly with his brisk, unsentimental account of the Beethoven.

Mr. Jacobsen found a few surprises in the Fifth Symphony. Largely because the Knights’ chamber orchestra configuration allows a trim, transparent sound, inner dialogues (like those between the woodwinds and the lower strings) rang out clearly but without distracting the ear from the more central themes and interplay.