Brooklyn collective The Knights opened their residency at the 92nd St Y with a peripatetic program spanning three continents and nearly two centuries. They played with an appealing immediacy, abetted by the Kaufmann Concert Hall’s relatively dry acoustics.

Colin Jacobsen, Eric Jacobsen and The Knights
© Joseph Sinnott

The ubiquitous Jessie Montgomery’s Records from a Vanishing City opened the program. Inspired by the composer’s inheritance of a family friend’s record collection, it is intended to evoke childhood memories of music. I could hear shout-outs to Miles Davis and other jazz influences, and we were told that there were also quotes from an Angolan lullaby and a song that Montgomery’s mother had written for her as a child. I am generally a fan of Montgomery’s work, but this piece didn’t engage me. The layers and restless energy were appealing, as was a passage in which soloists tossed around an ascending figure like rising smoke, but the string figuration underlying much of the piece was so understated as to lack definition.

The Kaufmann Concert Hall has a short reverberation time for a classical music venue, which leaves the music very exposed and present, but promotes clarity of texture. Eric Jacobsen’s take on Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony took advantage of this, with the opening string ensemble texture taking on an attention-grabbing immediacy even before any of the famous tunes began. The first movement’s iconic second theme had a lovely lilt, and the orchestral tutti passages were cohesive and well-balanced. Tempos were varied but not indulgent. The overall impression was of a very personal statement, mood swings and all, rather than an attempt at epic sweep.

Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending can come across as either sentimental, even twee, or profound. I am delighted and even awed to say that here it was the latter. Colin Jacobsen’s rhapsodic violin, rather than just imitating bird calls, seemed to be conjuring a landscape from imagination, a transcendent act of creation, with the muted strings behind him lending an air of quiet mystery. The country dance section, which the Jacobsen brothers took at a modest, pensive pace, explored that landscape, finding joy and quiet fulfillment. The “dawn chorus” passage made me smile. So did some of the larger orchestral moments, which had the grandeur the group had eschewed in the Schubert. And in the final violin cadenza, the third very similar passage in the piece, Colin Jacobsen somehow kept the sense of narrative alive throughout the repetitions. This was one of those rare performances that define a piece of music. 

Colin Jacobsen, Eric Jacobsen and The Knights
© Joseph Sinnott

Gottschalk’s two-movement Symphony no. 2 “À Montevideo” is a short piece despite the name, really a brief prologue and a concert overture. Gottschalk was a 19th-century New Orleans piano prodigy who toured Europe and died young in South America. The first movement features a lovely, if forgettable, tune; the second has a manic, Offenbach-like energy, and reasonably interesting orchestrations, including a duet for two piccolos. It’s very much what used to be called “light classical”, however, and probably would have been better as a concert opener.

The Knights played a selection from their forthcoming holiday album “The Knights Before Christmas” as an encore, a klezmer-inspired Hanukkah romp, again featuring Colin Jacobsen, although much of the ensemble got in on the sliding, inflected action before it was over. 

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