In a Rite of Late Summer, Naumburg Concerts Finish

08.23.11
The Knights
The New York Times

By Allan Kozinn

The Naumburg Orchestral Concerts had planned to present free performances by three ensembles in its four-concert series this summer, but only one — the Knights, an enterprising young chamber orchestra — made it through its programs as planned. That ensemble opened the organization’s 106th season in June, with a lineup that included a commissioned work by Lisa Bielawa and the Beethoven Fifth Symphony. And the orchestra closed this summer’s festivities on Monday evening in Central Park with a program split between works of Schubert and Liszt. 

On both evenings the Knights benefitted from fine weather, but the two bands scheduled to perform between those dates were not so lucky: the Matt Herskowitz Trio played half a concert but was rained out at intermission (the group will play its full program, under the Naumburg’s auspices, at the Yamaha Piano Salon on Oct. 5); and the Jupiter Symphony Chamber Players were washed out by a heavy storm well before curtain time.

The Knights seem to be living charmed lives at the moment. The group is the subject of a PBS special scheduled for broadcast on Sept. 8, and a week later it begins a three-day residency, which includes a broadcast concert and programming duties, at WQXR (105.9 FM).

It is also thriving in purely artistic terms. During the ensemble’s supple account of Liszt’s short, funereal “Am Grabe Richard Wagners,” the strings produced a beautiful, silken tone that was all the more striking, given the compromising circumstances of an outdoor performance and amplified sound. And that quality was consistent throughout the evening, even against an onslaught of roaring airplanes, barking dogs, crying babies, untamed cellphones and inexplicable shouting by someone who was not far from the band shell.

In the curtain raiser, Schubert’s “Rosamunde” Overture, the musicians produced the kind of dark-hued, Romantic heft you expect from a full-scale symphony orchestra, and they brought elegance and flexibility to the more lightly scored passages. Several arrangements of Schubert and Liszt songs by members of the ensemble made astute use of its resources, often passing the vocal lines around the winds and keeping the accompaniments in the strings.

Eric Jacobsen conducted a shapely reading of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, a piece the Knights had attempted at a Naumburg concert last summer, but gave up on that occasion when a storm made continuing impossible. This time Mr. Jacobsen and company made it to the end and then moved from the sublime to the, well, perhaps not quite ridiculous, but certainly zany.

As its finale the group played an arrangement of Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody” No. 2, which was credited to the full ensemble. The scoring was as inventive as could be, with Liszt’s melodies dashing from section to section, and tempos shifting quickly in a super-magnified form of rubato. The players were unquestionably having a good time with this odd version, and it was hard not to get caught up in its spirit.