It has long been noted that classical music audiences are relatively aging, effete, and small. To energize and popularize concert music – baroque, classical, romantic, and contemporary – many artists and ensembles are going in non-traditional directions in their programming, venues, and, maybe most important, attitude. The peppy Brooklyn collective known as The Knights brings buzzing contemporary energy even when they’re in a standard orchestral format in a traditional concert hall – as was the case on Saturday night at the 92nd Street Y, with a rousing program spanning three centuries of music.
The fact is, even a small full orchestra needs a fairly large stage and an acoustically well-tuned hall to sound its best. I saw the Knights in an outdoor concert at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery back in June (sponsored by Death of Classical, whose name plays with the aforementioned and oft-lamented decline in the audience for classical music). The show and setting were lovely, the “post”-pandemic mood celebratory, but by necessity the amplified sound fell well short of the sublime experience you can get when a great orchestra plays in a fine hall.
Visible enthusiasm drove the musicians last Saturday night in the Y’s Theresa L. Kaufmann Concert Hall. Conducted with vigor by co-founder Eric Jacobsen, the orchestra gave us Schubert’s popular “Unfinished” Symphony; a short crowd-pleasing symphony by 19th-century American composer Louis Gottschalk; Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ineffable “The Lark Ascending,” with a spellbinding performance by violinist and co-founder Colin Jacobsen; and a striking recent composition by the Leonard Bernstein Award-winning composer Jessie Montgomery.
Concerts are often programmed to open with a familiar classical piece, to juice and comfort listeners into being open to some challenging modern fare later on. The Knights saw no need for such coddling, opening the show with Montgomery’s “Records from a Vanishing City.” Though overall an accessible composition, it opens with stormy clouds of dissonant chords that give way to nervous staircase melodies.
With inspiration from the vernacular and roots in an Angolan lullaby, the piece sways from aggression to moodiness to serenity, with a folk tune, a jazzy dance section, and a call-and-response sequence over gently swaying chords. The captivating music and the orchestra’s intense performance both shone with gravitas and finesse. I greatly look forward to hearing more of Montgomery’s work.
I found it interesting how natural seemed the segue from the Montgomery to the Schubert. The famous first movement of the “Unfinished” (Eighth) Symphony is so agonizingly emotional that it can sound as in-the-moment as anything. Yes, there was the thrill of seeing a full orchestra in a good hall after nearly two years without indoor concerts. But this really was an orchestra playing with exceptional clarity and drama, while limning the music’s forward-thinking aspects. The crispness of the wall-of-sound passages in the second movement, too, evidenced the ensemble’s well-calibrated balance and sensitivity to the space. I truly felt I was hearing something very fresh in this tried-and-true music.
Vaughan Williams’ popular violin showcase “The Lark Ascending” has an ethereal beauty that few listeners can resist. Colin Jacobsen’s three-dimensional performance sparkled, soft and flowing and sure. With shifting colors, gossamer high notes, and keening lows melded in a luxurious legato, he lived the music’s evocativeness and its exoticism, transforming challenging passages into graceful song. Soloist and orchestra played as a single organism.
The concert closed with an old-fashioned type of crowd-pleaser, Louis Gottschalk’s short Symphony No. 2 “Á Montevideo.” Its cascade of ideas includes patriotic songs from South America and a piping dollop of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” A rollicking ride through the Americas, it reflects the New Orleans-born composer-pianist’s itinerant career and his inspirations from South America and Puerto Rico.
And I may never think about the piccolo the same way again. Incidentally, Gottschalk is buried at Green-Wood Cemetery. Maybe he’s not too far from Leonard Bernstein. I plan to pay him a visit next time I’m there.
Information and tickets for the Knights’ 2021-2022 season are at their website.