The Knights consistently put on some of the most interesting classical concerts in New York. Their offering Friday night, the last concert of their residency with the 92nd Street Y, showcased their flexibility, with forces ranging from quintet to full orchestra. The quintet was Shining Gate of Morpheus by the Jamaican-born, British-based composer Eleanor Alberga, for string quartet and French horn, with David Byrd-Marrow listed as soloist. Despite that listing, the piece is really chamber music, with each instrument having an equal if not equivalent role. The piece recalls Stravinsky, with dissonant chords repeated enough to become stable, and continually transforming short melodic motifs. It does change textures frequently and radically enough to evoke the logic of dreams implied by the title. The quintet played with authority; Byrd-Marrow seemed most at home in the higher registers, with a slight fogginess in his sound in the middle and bottom.

The Knights
© Joseph Sinnott

Conductor Eric Jacobsen, serving also as the evening’s emcee in lieu of printed program notes, mentioned that Appalachian Spring was written in wartime (1944) and dedicated the performance “to our fellow musicians and artists in Ukraine”. This work, in its original 13-piece version written for Martha Graham’s ballet, is something of a signature piece for The Knights. They did a fantastic job with it. Every detail of the brilliant small-ensemble orchestration was vivid. The constantly churning mixed meters were razor-sharp. At this size, the piece has a very human scale; rather than evoking the prairies, it evokes the settlers. In The Knights’ hands, it spoke to the myths we tell ourselves about the communities we create, an especially pungent and poignant subject in the United States right now. The transition to the seventh scene, which features the Shaker melody Simple Gifts, ended with a prayerful pianissimo, as though welcoming the approach of something holy. But the tune itself was sprightly and dancing, again on a human scale.

Edgar Meyer and The Knights
© Joseph Sinnott

The stage filled up with the orchestra’s full complement to accompany legendary double bassist Edgar Meyer in his Concerto no. 3 in E major for Double Bass and Orchestra. Written in three continuous movements, the piece sounds perhaps as though Copland and Bartók had a composer baby, with references to fiddle tunes included periodically for postmodern credibility. Swirling woodwind textures evoke a primordial chaos, from which the bass emerges as a Shakespearean voice; an oboe comments on the soloist’s material. A static, meditative middle movement is interrupted by a violent orchestral outburst; the piece rides to a final restatement of the opening material on a rollicking triplet groove. It’s immensely satisfying, and The Knights did it more than justice but, as in any concerto, most of the fun comes from the soloist. And Meyer’s playing was equal parts astonishing and thrilling. Leaning over the top of the instrument to reach the bottom portion of the fingerboard, he made sounds and played notes that absolutely should not be possible on a bass. He’s as fleet of finger as any violinist; the concerto includes raga-like passages, a cadenza that has two melodies going on at the same time like a Bach cello suite, and passages in double stops, notoriously difficult on the bass because of the sheer distance between notes on the strings.

There were two encores: a duet for Meyer and his violinist son Gregory, written by the latter, who had been playing in the violin section; and an arrangement by concertmaster Colin Jacobsen of a lively French song, which eventually the audience was invited to sing along with. I’m a reluctant singer, but I admire the populist approach here.