The organizers of the Naumburg Orchestral Concerts could hardly have asked for a nicer evening for The Knights and violinist Lara St. John to present the New York premiere of Avner Dorman’s Nigunim. The darkening sky turned rose-red and aqua blue as the audience heard a spectacular performance of the virtuosic concerto and an invigorating reading of Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 (“Scottish”).
The adventurous Brooklyn-based ensemble opened the program with a work of its own. “Keeping On” is a whimsical quilt of clever elements based on the famous opening motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Various members of the orchestra worked on parts of the piece during the pandemic lockdown, putting it all together in time for last night’s world premiere. It is a wondrously knotty collage: fun, spirited, rhythmic, jazzy and cinematic – both by turns and simultaneously. It closes with a brief, beautiful vocal duet that suggested an intertwining of Laurie Anderson and St. Vincent.
Around the World in Four Movements
The meat of the program commenced when Lara St. John stepped in front of the white-clad orchestra. Nigunim is a violin concerto rooted in melodies inspired by Jewish songs from around the world. The piece won the Azrieli Prize in 2018. In a recent interview with Blogcritics the composer told us that in writing it he created new melodies inspired by “listening to music from Jewish communities around the world, recalling music I had heard from different diasporas, and internalizing the styles and gestures. I also analyzed these melodies and found some surprising commonalities.”
The melodies are certainly evocative of Jewish songs. But Dorman develops them using a musical language all his own.
The spectral beginning has a mournful air, the violin speaking first in a thin, keening voice. A klezmer clarinet explodes into the mix, touching off thunder from the orchestra and a sequence of thrilling violin-and-orchestra passages. Right away it was clear that the soloist and the orchestra, as led by Knights co-artistic director Eric Jacobsen, had locked together into the music. They remained perfectly in sync even at its most challenging.
Marked “Adagio Religioso,” the opening movement evolves into a dirge alternating between dissonant harmonies and folk song-suggestive motifs. The Scherzo that follows shifts the mood dramatically. A feisty dance rocked by furious pizzicatos, it fuses celestial and macabre elements and includes a barrage of violin fireworks that generated spontaneous applause.
The third movement (“Adagio”) draws a pointillistic curtain of sound; then a solemn ringing of bells leads to a gorgeous violin melody couched in modernist harmonics and glassy songplay. This movement flows directly into the finale, a scampering “Presto” dominated by a hurried 7/8 rhythm that rides over muscular groans and anguished chirps. Soloist and orchestra alike negotiated the movement’s complex rhythms brilliantly.
The composer, my wife suggested to me afterwards, “was trying to kill the violinist.” If so, no such luck. Lara St. John is a force of nature. After the concerto she dazzled the crowd with a concoction of her own, a tour-de-force dazzler she said she “sort of made up based on some old Oltenian tunes (a province in Romania). I call it: ‘Oltenian Hora.'” It fit right in with the boisterous good feeling a Knights concert routinely creates.
A Sojourn in the Highlands
While Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony had little in common harmonically with the rest of the program, it was nonetheless a well-chosen complement, with its wide-angled high spirits and fulsome earworms. The orchestra invigorated the first movement with pipe organ-like textures and carnivalesque energy. This “Andante con moto” seemed to embody a whole travelogue; it was easy to perceive the young composer’s inspiration from the Scottish countryside. I pictured horsemen riding over one terrain after another, sometimes egged on by hunting horns.
Throughout, the orchestra conveyed Mendelssohn’s mastery of tone color and articulated his skilled interplay among the various voices. The dancing second movement featured yeoman work from the reeds amid a picture of a village dance or perhaps a street fair. The third felt like a lyrical love story with dramatic weather and triumphant dotted-note rhythms and chords. The finale with its unstoppable theme and energy sent us off with an insistent tune in our uplifted heads.
What better place for music inspired by cultures and places around the world than Central Park, in the heart of one of the world’s most international cities? The Naumburg Bandshell is almost a hundred years old. May it host great performances like this for a second century.