Violinist Gil Shaham appeared with The Knights, a Brooklyn-based chamber orchestra, for a varied recital on Feb. 26, at the Street and Davis Performance Hall, located within the Moss Arts Center, a new flagship performance venue on the Virginia Tech campus.
The Knights is a flexible ensemble founded by the Jacobsen brothers, Colin (an Avery Fisher grantee and the group’s concertmaster) and Eric (a cellist who serves as conductor). The full ensemble comprises six stands of violins, two stands each of violas and cellos, three basses, three horns, two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, trumpets, and bassoons, and a percussionist.
The program opened with a lively set of fourteen pieces, “Les Caracteres de la Danse” by baroque composer Jean-Fery Rebel (1666-1747). This whirlwind of an orchestral sonata offers up something new every 30-60 seconds – a new meter, a new tempo, a new feel, each coming right on the heels of the last. The wind section was pared down to just two oboes, one flute, and one bassoon for the Rebel. The three basses provided a very rich lower voice, which I suspect was not present in the day of the composer. Overall the Jacobsens have clearly taken great advantage of most obvious benefits of a smaller orchestra, among which are high precision and pin-drop pianissimos.
The second piece featured Shaham performing Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2, Op. 63. In fact this recital was the final performance in a two-week tour accompanying the release of a new album featuring this concerto. Shaham gave lively renditions of the fast movements with high polish and his clarity was well matched by The Knights. He navigated the shifting emotions of the second movement with great sensitivity. At times he seemed to be playing duets with the concertmaster, at others with the conductor, and sometimes whilst playing he strolled a little farther toward the audience. There was confident joy and even some dazzle in Shaham’s playing, but I didn’t hear abandon or grit. I heard a clean and linear, silvery style that gave the entire work a neo-classical feel, which I believe Prokofiev himself would have appreciated.
After intermission The Knights returned with their full ensemble to perform Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, Op. 55 (Eroica). Again, The Knights do not project the huge sound of a major philharmonic, but their lines are clean and precise, and their phrasing is attentive and surprisingly rich. Here I must mention the excellence of the principal flautist, who executed lovely solo passages. The horns rendered their passages cleanly as well, although I found it surprising and slightly off-putting that the tone of the three individual horns was so different which seemed somehow to frustrate the blending of their harmonies.
A beautiful encore brought violinist Christina Courtin to the microphone to sing Bob Dylan’s “Heroes” in an arrangement prepared by [The Knights] (I hope to identify the arranger soon and then edit this post). The Knights pride themselves on a membership featuring multi-instrumentalists, arrangers, and the like. And overall I sense a spirit of adventure and a high level of musicianship in this group. Courtin herself apparently enjoys a second (or perhaps even first) career in the NYC area as a singer-songwriter of some acclaim. Ordinarily I do not care for the music of Dylan (and even less for his singing), but I found Courtin’s rendition both compelling and touching and the arrangement innovative and tasteful.
The only downside to the evening was a guest sitting near me who was wearing “Three Martinis” cologne (that is to say, the individual reeked of alcohol) and who suffered a coughing spell during the first movement of the Beethoven, fortunately subsiding as the funeral march began.
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