Gil Shaham and The Knights: the Music that Grows from Friendship

February 17, 2021, 4:45 PM · When Gil Shaham decided to record the Beethoven and Brahms violin concertos with the Brooklyn-based orchestra called The Knights, he wasn't too surprised that the first rehearsal was more of a chamber music party in the conductor's living room. Shaham sat in a circle with conductor Eric Jacobsen and the orchestra's section leaders, and they read through the concertos together.

That's just how The Knights do things.

Shaham has been working with The Knights for about a dozen years and in 2016 recorded Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2 with the group. Their new recording of the Beethoven and Brahms Violin Concertos will be released on March 12.

"They are musicians of such mastery, of such caliber," Shaham said. "When it comes to go-time they like to have fun, and they go out of the box."

The Knights is an orchestra with an interesting name and an interesting story, having grown from Jacobsen's days at The Juilliard School in New York City.

Eric and his brother, violinist Colin Jacobsen, four years older, developed a routine together back when they were students: they would herd their Juilliard friends onto a train and bring them home to Long Island, where "we would read chamber music all night long," Jacobsen said.

When it came time to do his Juilliard pre-college senior recital, Jacobsen asked about 20 friends to accompany him for his performance of a Haydn Cello Concerto. "The powers-that-be at Juilliard asked, 'What is the name of the group?' and I said, 'It's the Knights of the Many-Sided Table,'" Jacobsen said, laughing. "I was reading a King Arthur book at the time -- it was a little tongue-in-cheek."

Over the years, those friends and others coalesced into a group that regularly performed together, and that group was officially incorporated in 2007 as "The Knights." Even today, their chamber music beginnings have remained an important part of the group's essential character.

"When I think about it these days (during the pandemic) I could almost cry, being able to be in a room together with 30 friends and enjoy food and drinks and music and just play all night long, for no other reason than the joy of discovering these pieces and each other," Jacobsen said. "I feel like the foundation that we set from when we were 15 - so much of that was finding a shared joy and a shared goal."

Shaham tapped into that sense when he heard The Knights perform Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 a number of years ago. "I was blown away by that performance," Shaham said. "It was back then when we started talking about recording the concerto. I felt (their performance) caught the spirit of Beethoven - as a revolutionary. In the Violin Concerto, there is something about that revolutionary feel. There is something militaristic, something heroic about it."

BELOW: Here is my full conversation with violinist Gil Shaham and conductor/cellist Eric Jacobsen:

"The Beethoven concerto is like nothing that came before it; it's so much bigger in scope, so much bigger in length," Shaham said. "The story that it tells takes you to so many different places emotionally."

So Shaham and The Knights recorded the Beethoven and Brahms in 2019. It was, of course, before the virus brought its draconian limitations.

"We put a lot of hours into both of these concertos - probably more than most concertos getting recorded," Jacobsen said. Their multiple rehearsals went beyond the practicalities of "getting things together" - they took time for musical discovery and collaboration as well. "Everyone in the orchestra - soloists, players conductor - has the mandate or the open possibility of contributing in any way he or she pleases," he said. So many ideas were considered and rehearsed.

When they first thought about recording the Beethoven and Brahms concertos, Jacobsen had wanted to make two concept albums. "We had some beautiful concepts for a Beethoven album, and a Brahms album," he said, bringing together pieces influenced by or related to each concerto. But Shaham felt that the Beethoven and Brahms Concertos are "sister works," that they belonged together on one album.

"They are in some ways real companion pieces, and it took this project for me to realize that," Jacobsen said.

For example, the premiere of the Brahms Violin Concerto, with Brahms on the podium and his lifelong friend and famed violinist Joseph Joachim playing the violin part, also featured the Beethoven Violin Concerto.

Shaham feels that Brahms' Violin Concerto was very much tied up in Brahms' friendship with Joachim, for whom the piece was written.

"Even from the time they were young, they would philosophize about, 'Should we get married or should we stay single?'" Shaham said. "Brahms famously said, 'I will never be fettered by marriage and family!' and Joachim responded with, 'Sure, you will be free, but you will be lonely'" -- the origin of Joachim's motto - "FAE" - "Frei aber einsam" in German, "Free but lonely." Brahms countered that he would be "free but happy," and indeed he remained unmarried for his entire life.

For that reason, friendship appears to have been very important to Brahms.

"I believe that this violin concerto tells of Brahms' ideal of friendship," Shaham said. "For Brahms, I believe friendship was the single most-important human connection. I believe this violin concerto was about friendship -- his friendship with Joachim in particular, and friendship in general."

"Making music is a very intimate, bonding experience," Shaham said. "You're literally breathing together, and there is so much non-verbal communication."

For The Knights, for Shaham, for these great composers of the past - friendship is the foundation, and music is the glue that keeps it together. Let's hope we can all get back to live music-making soon.

* * *

Shaham's recording with The Knights of the Brahms and Beethoven Violin Concertos will be released March 12 - here is the link to pre-order.

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February 18, 2021 at 04:46 PM · I saw Gil and the Knights in 2016 here in Blacksburg. They were fantastic. My review is recorded in my blog:

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