Planes, Buses, Fumes, Brakes, Gnats and Melody

07.11.12
The Knights
The New York Times

By Allan Kozinn

Knights in Naumburg Orchestral Concert at Central Park

The Knights have been the de facto house band of the free Naumburg Orchestral Concerts in Central Park for the last few summers, and they are clearly comfortable enough in that role to experiment with approaches to outdoor programming.

Most ensembles, including this one, have typically built their parks programs of robust works that stand up easily to the formidable competition of airplane engines; bird song; the distant, dull hum of the city’s traffic; passing radios; and for a while on Tuesday evening someone playing a snare drum not far from the Naumburg Bandshell.

But the Knights decided not to be cowed by all that. Among their offerings on Tuesday were Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll” — not a whispered work, exactly, but its subtleties are abundant — and Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” a work rich in delicate textural details.

Soft-spoken moments were also plentiful in Thomas Adès’s “Three Studies From Couperin” (2006), and even when the music was more outgoing, as in Schumann’s Cello Concerto, both the Knights and Julia MacLaine, the soloist, emphasized refinement over power.

It is a measure of the young orchestra’s accomplishment that even in this program of decidedly non-outdoor-ready music, it held the attention of a hefty audience through the entire program. (The 900 seats in front of the band shell were full; another 200 or more people stood at the back and sides.) It says something about the lure of live music too: listeners could easily have stayed home and heard the live broadcast on WQXR.

If the idea was to draw the audience’s attention toward the stage, the strategy worked. The Wagner benefited from a natural, seductive flow and, once your ears became acclimated to the modest amplification, a plush shapely string sound. It was performed without a conductor; Eric Jacobsen, who usually conducts, played in the cello section.

Mr. Jacobsen took to the podium for the Schumann, Debussy and Adès works, abandoning it again only for “Ascending Bird,” the program’s finale. This is an exotic fantasy by Colin Jacobsen and Siamak Aghaei, based on an Iranian folk song (and often used as an encore by Brooklyn Rider, the adventurous string quartet in which both Colin and Eric Jacobsen, who are brothers, perform).

In the Schumann, Ms. MacLaine played the solo line with a compelling serenity that underscored even the more dramatic passages in the finale. It was an unusual approach that prized graceful introspection over display. The orchestra, as in the Wagner, produced a solid, thoroughly unified sound, qualities it retained — with a measure of suppleness and mystery added — in the Debussy.

Mr. Adès’s Couperin studies — clever orchestrations of Baroque keyboard works — require flexibility too, not least because of the inventiveness with which Mr. Adès has threaded Couperin’s themes and countersubjects through the sections of the orchestra.

This is where external noise (including the drummer) took its greatest toll, but Mr. Jacobsen and his players overcame those problems with a fluid, pastel-hued performance that made you want to hear the piece again, indoors.