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Monday, September 23, 2013

True Knights Pastime

Coming Attractions Dept.: A performance by the excellent Brooklyn-based orchestra The Knights kicks off the new Troy Chromatics concert series at 7:30 PM Sun., Sep. 29 at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. The program includes works by Bach, Stravinsky, Reich, Haydn, and a chaconne written by the orchestra itself. They performed here early last year. Here’s my review of that event.


THE CONCERT WAS PHENOMENAL. Where were the people? It would be depressing if it weren’t so absurd. The night before The Knights appeared at Troy Music Hall, they performed in Manhattan at WQXR’s Greene Space studio, at floor level with an enthusiastic crowd. (You can find online video of the event.) The concert shared some numbers with the Troy program, but, not surprisingly, the Manhattan event was more adventurous, featuring a John Adams piece that calls for audience contributions.

The Knights | Photo by Sarah Small
Something you don’t dare risk in the Capital Region. We have one of the world’s finest concert halls, and Troy Chromatic Concerts was enlightened enough to present one of the world’s more innovative and exciting orchestras, and most of the audience-that-might-have-been sat home on their asses and did who-knows-what, although if I find out it had anything to do with television, I’m going door to door to strangle some people.

“I hear a lot of excuses,” someone associated with Troy Chromatics told me. “People say they have rehearsals or other plans.” And I say to those people, your priorities are feeble. Your pretense to artistic enlightenment is just that: pretense.

Where were the musicians? Granted, I wasn’t able to examine every audience member – although it wouldn’t have taken long – but I saw none of the professional musicians I know. Where the hell were you? The only excuse I’ll buy is that ticket prices are too high. They’re nothing compared to Manhattan prices, but still. If you’re making a living as an artist, even a few bucks can be a challenge. That’s why I write reviews. It gets me in the hall for free. You could try that approach.

Or you could call someone at Troy Chromatics. They’d work something out for you, I’m sure. If you’re truly an artist, you should have no shame in begging for cultural discounts.

Last Thursday evening was warmish and beautiful. I didn’t want to travel, fight for parking, sit in a hall. But here’s why I went: I held out the hope, fulfilled in this case, that the concert would be transformative.

Music affects me like no other entertainment. Hell, it’s not even entertainment. It’s a deeply affecting drug that drags me to places in head and soul that seem downright scary sometimes. I throw myself at music old and new and find rewards in all of it.

Take Charles Ives’s “Unanswered Question,” which opened the show. In the wrong hands it’s a cornball piece. I think Bernstein took it too seriously. You have the cosmos laughing in there, in the form of the plangent woodwinds, and the ensemble took advantage of the hall’s properties to plant the trumpeter, who asks the titular question, unseen in the organ loft, with the strings on stage and the winds up in a balcony. It felt as if those questions and answers were sounding in the middle of my head, which was creepy and therefore beautiful.

It set the stage for Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” later in the program, which burrows into string-orchestra texture sing a plaintive song with a slow, effective climax, more stunningly than its original incarnation for string quartet. Both Barber and Aaron Copland owe much to Ives’s rugged orneriness, but they found ways to smooth their voices into audience-pleasing pieces.

So much so, in the case of Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” that I resent the way it’s come to represent a sound of American music. However, I forced myself to listen with as little prejudice as possible and, what do you know, thoroughly enjoyed it.

But that’s because the program was spiced with newer, contrasting works that woke up the ears. Three movements from Gabriela Lena Frank’s 2006 “Leyenas: An Andean Walkabout” invoked a sense of Peruvian-inspired rhythmic and melodic variety, calling on the strings to suggest pan pipes and wooden flutes, even as it took advantage of the strings’ own techniques of pizzicato, harmonics and percussive effects. By the third movement, characterized by guitar effects, the Knights were swinging like a classic big band, the communication among players something impressive both to hear and see.

With winds and horns added, Osvaldo Golijov’s “Night of the Flying Horses” brought the concert’s first half to a rousing, gypsy close. The full ensemble, gussied with brass, returned to play Lisa Bielawa’s “Tempelhof Etude,” a short work intended as a study for a huge piece she’s writing for a huge performance at Berlin’s former Tempelhof Airport.

The work – written for the specific players of The Knights – features quasi-improvisatory moments in which players are given individual melodic tasks to perform within determined time constraints, which added excitement without ever seeming chaotic. I look forward to more of Bielawa’s work.

Percussionist Michael Caterisano brought out a cojon drum to enhance the encore, the lively “Ascending Bird” by Siamak Aghaei and Knights concertmaster Colin Jacobsen.

Jacobsen and his brother, Eric, a cellist who conducted the ensemble, are also associated with the excellent string quartet Brooklyn Rider and there’s performer overlap with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project. This is the future of classical music. You really should be paying attention.

Overheard at the concert, and offered without comment: “I wouldn’t know if they played it well. I don’t know the music” and “Oh, look: they play classical music in modern dress.”

It’s going to be a long haul.

The Knights
Eric Jacobsen, conductor
Troy Music Hall, April 5

Metroland Magazine, 12 April 2012

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