On the heels of a three-week tour of Europe, New York’s The Knights returned home and to the basement auditorium at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday for an inconsistent but ultimately enjoyable program ranging from the Baroque and swing eras to more contemporary offerings.

The Knights in Zankel Hall © Pete Checchia
The Knights in Zankel Hall
© Pete Checchia

The evening opened with a piece that is quickly becoming canon, at least in New York City. Pulitzer prize winner Caroline Shaw’s 2011 single-movement string quartet Entr’acte – which she exploded the piece to a string orchestra in 2014 should, at least etymologically speaking, be an intermission piece, but it worked well as an introduction on this night at Zankel Hall. The 20 strings of The Knights dug into the theme and skated through the dissonances, all but the cellos standing with bows dramatically held akimbo during the pizzicato. With no lack of drama, it gradually grew softer beginning to end. The ensemble tackled the piece without a conductor, achieving a sort of flocking behavior with one violin then another introducing direction and the rest swarming around the motif. It proved to be a very effective reading, managing to be both heroic and melancholic, resolving in a final recitation of the theme on a single strummed cello.

While Shaw’s piece lives a good life in town (and a recording by the Attacca Quartet is being issued this month by New Amsterdam), the Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy could stand to be heard more often on New York stages. His 2017 Canons and Overtones, for a smaller ensemble of strings, flute, clarinet and bass clarinet, piano, trombone and percussion, was led by conductor Eric Jacobson, and thankfully so. Where the Shaw benefited from a certain amount of looseness, here the tight interplay of instruments would have soon turned to mud. Instead, they kept the overlaid strands clear and present. Like Entr’acte, though, Canons and Overtones dealt in dissonances without clamour and the orchestra delivered them that way, as simple as a puddle on the pavement.

The Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh joined the ensemble on two of his own pieces. In the first half, they played his 2017 Concertino Grosso, the title (a little big concerto) hinted at the playfulness in his writing. Employing Peruvian cajón and steel string guitar against the string orchestra, and with Azmeh’s lilting clarinet lines, it came off as a folk dance from a village of no nation. His 2007 Wedding, coming after the interval, was more strictly tied to the traditions of his homeland, working as a vehicle for the improvised soloing of clarinet, guitar and violin.

The Knights in Zankel Hall © Pete Checchia
The Knights in Zankel Hall
© Pete Checchia

The scattered second half began again with the strings standing again, less a conductor, this time for Vivaldi’s brief Sinfonia in B minor, RV 169. It’s an old trick in new music, dropping the Baroque in with the contemporary, and it’s one that rarely fails. But the piece went by so quickly and so beautifully – a deeper drama, a sadder song to welcome ears – that it seemed to just suggest the point of different sorts of structuring without making it.

Or maybe it was intended to make a different point. Shaw’s piece was inspired by Haydn and the piece that followed the Vivaldi quoted from Beethoven (Ligeti would also be reworked before the evening’s end.), so perhaps the objective was simply intermingling old and new. Thomas Adès’ 1990 Chamber Symphony swirled in dueting themes, borrowing from Beethoven’s “Farewell” Sonata and building on his own softly crying themes. Adès is a true dramatist and brought multiple emotions on stage at once rather than simply dealing in shifting moods. Jazzy percussion and singing horns with strings underscoring the proceedings and a fantastically percussive muted piano played by Steven Beck danced under Jacobson’s baton.

There, however, the drama ended. Knights horn player Michael P. Atkinson wrote a spritely arrangement of György Ligeti’s Hungarian Rock for the orchestra, dubbing it “Ligeti Split”. Like Azmeh’s offerings, it was quite well received, if not holding up to the promise of the original, and in the company of Vivaldi and, in passing, Beethoven, felt too clever by half. The evening closed with a take on the old swingtime tune “Big Noise From Winnetka” – which has been recorded by the likes of Gene Krupa and Bette Midler – complete with a drumsticks-on-bass-strings solo that drew cheers from the full house. The one-two punch of the finale made clear that the Knights had been intent on crowd-pleasing all along, and knew how to do it. And there’s nothing especially wrong with having fun, especially when you’re good at it.

***11