Freelance Orchestras Seizing the Moment

The Knights
San Francisco Classical Voice

By Brett Campbell

The Knights: Music as Serious Play

Jacobsen is the main composer for The Knights, a New York “orchestra of friends” conducted by Colin’s brother Eric, which has already played the city’s most prestigious venues (Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center) and the hippest (Le Poisson Rouge), has recorded on Philip Glass’s Orange Mountain label, became the resident orchestra at the city’s celebrated MATA Festival for emerging composers, has performed around Europe, and has worked with stars like Dawn Upshaw, Gil Shaham, Osvaldo Golijov, and Yo Yo Ma, who’s become a mentor.

The brothers set a goal of paying musicians from the outset, and have been gradually trying to increase that amount over the years. But the members earn their livings by freelancing in various orchestras, chamber groups, Broadway shows, Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, and in all kinds of genres. Many are in their 20s and 30s but some are in their 60s.

The players handle the nonmusical tasks, too. “There’s as little divide between musicians and management as possible,” Colin says. “We’re not divided between the people playing the chord and the people writing the donor the thank-you note,” his brother Eric agrees.

The Knights emerged a decade ago out of a group of friends who were going to the same school and got together to play chamber music. After a couple of performances at the famed Bargemusic series, the group was able to afford rehearsal retreats for more gigs. “We didn’t set out to change the way orchestras do something,” Colin says. “We just wanted to put on concerts with our friends. We realized good things were happening and we focused on having continuity between one project and others, both financially and in terms of the big picture. We kept doing what we were doing, and people outside noticed and asked us to do more.”

“We do have a core audience,” Colin says. “As we’ve grown together, the audience and musicians and community at large are starting to trust each other more and more, so whatever we program, they say ‘This sounds like an interesting idea, let’s try it!’ Even if it’s not standard repertoire, they’re willing to try it anyway. That’s a relationship we’re trying to build on.”

As with so many of these orchestras, that repertoire is generally project driven, such as their next album of Schubert’s music as viewed through the musical lens of the minimalists. Like other musicians of their generation, the Jacobsens refuse to be limited to certain musical genres or periods. “You come from a cloistered conservatory, and you get out there in the world, and you want to play music for people of all generations, not just those older than you,” accordint to Eric Jacobsen.

They’ve also collaborated with a variety of artists. And they’ve taken their work online, including a Google-sponsored YouTube event that drew thousands of Web hits. “It showed that there are many people out there who want to hear orchestral music,” Colin says. “It’s a huge audience, and they didn’t just tune in for a few minutes but for the whole thing. There’s a whole world out there if you can reach them.”