My wife and I recently set some sort of minor record. We attended three concerts in one week featuring two brothers, Colin and Eric Jacobsen, with fellow musicians, who demonstrated that the future of classical music is very much alive and well.
By Allen Clark
My wife and I recently set some sort of minor record. We attended three concerts in one week featuring two brothers, Colin and Eric Jacobsen, with fellow musicians, who demonstrated that the future of classical music is very much alive and well. Their story has a Rye connection.
Ten years ago, former Christ’s Church organist and choirmaster Alan Murchie, arranged three concerts at the church featuring some very talented, young string players. The two Jacobsen brothers were featured in two of the events and then as founding members of a group that was to become The Knights. What struck us in the audience was, first, the amazing virtuosity of violinist Colin and cellist Eric, and second, the youthful energy and freshness of the string ensemble.
In the decade that followed, we have had the good fortune to hear the Jacobsens in perhaps a dozen performances, infused with that same spirit and vitality. Which explains why my wife and I traveled to Caramoor one night, then Central Park four nights later and finally to the Hamptons two nights later, where we were visiting our son.
The Jacobsens grew up in a very musical family and attended Julliard School. Colin also studied at the Royal Conservatory of the Hague. Around 2000, the brothers began bringing talented friends together at their home for what they call late-night chamber music reading parties, first as a chamber group, then as a small orchestra. The collaboration, with the two brothers as co-artistic directors, expanded into special events, such as the third performance at Christ’s Church. I clearly recall the liveliness of the group of about 15 young musicians. I can also remember thinking what a pity it was that such musical excitement was being experienced by just 40 or 50 people.
The press soon began noticing The Knights and their unique approach to chamber music. They liked their sense of adventure, both in programming and in performance. A typical Knights evening offers music that ranges from canon to contemporary, often including totally new works, several composed by Colin or a collaboration of Knights members, others commissioned for The Knights. In performance, there is the same sense of joyful freedom of expression, and Knights members obviously enjoy themselves. As The New York Times noted, “Is there another orchestra that seems to be having as much fun when it plays as the Knights do?” The same can be said for the audience.
The sense of shared participation and pleasure that exemplifies The Knights is equally true when the Jacobsens play with two other Knights members, Johnny Gandelsman, violin, and Nicholas Cords, viola, as Brooklyn Rider. Started in 2006, this foursome moves the stereotype of a string quartet (if there is one) firmly into the 21st century. To quote from one review, they “combine a wildly eclectic repertoire with a gripping performance style.”
Again, what stands out is the combination of program and performance. There is an obvious nod to the Silk Road Ensemble, formed under the artistic direction of Yo-Yo Ma in 2000, with music drawn from around the world and instruments little known to Western ears. All four members of Brooklyn Rider have played within the Ensemble, one reason why Yo-Yo Ma has taken a special interest in and often plays with The Knights.
At the recent opening of the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival, the quartet focused on ethnic pieces, including “Ascending Bird,” written by Colin with Siamak Aghael, a former Silk Road member who lives in Tehran. To end the concert, the quartet played another Colin composition, “Brooklesca,” which Colin describes as “a celebration of our home [all four live in Brooklyn] and draws upon the rhythmic vitality created by the multiplicity of cultures we encounter on a daily basis.”
The Knights’ youthful demeanor is partly because they are in fact young; Eric is 30 and Colin 34. But their spirited approach is also by design. Their intent is to “cultivate collaborative music making and creatively engage audiences in the shared joy of musical performance.” Not a bad mission statement for living!
When Brooklyn Rider played at Caramoor in July, the eclectic program started with an original composition (“Seven Steps”) to which the entire orchestra had contributed, followed by a gypsy-inspired piece called “Culai” by Lev Zhurbin, and then an evocative and sometimes amusing piece written by Colin about the quartet’s violist who is also nicknamed “The Sheriff” because of his role “laying down the law and keeping us on track.” The final piece, showing the reach, breadth and balance of The Knights, was Beethoven’s Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor.
My wife and I were lucky earlier this year to have attended The Knights’ recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for Sony. With about 15 additional members invited to join for this recording (many of whom have played with The Knights before), the orchestra of some 50 musicians laid down the entire piece with just one or perhaps two minor retakes. This was not your grandmother’s recording session, but then, spontaneity is at the core of everything The Knights do. One take is just fine!
The result of a smaller orchestra (today’s orchestras tend to be twice as large) was a more intimate presentation of Beethoven’s Fifth, with more clarity, I felt, of instruments featured. Sitting right behind the violas for this recording – it was in a studio at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in Manhattan – was a real privilege and joy.
Another difference between The Knights and other, more traditional orchestras is the give and take among all members, starting with program selection and continuing though rehearsals right into the performances. Eric Jacobsen is conductor when one is needed. For many pieces, though, he returns to the cellist chair, and the very democratic orchestra leads itself. And during performances, different members of the orchestra often provide the oral introduction of the pieces being played.
At a special New Year’s Eve concert at the 92nd Street Y this year, The Knights’ more relaxed and what I might call conversational approach to performance was especially engaging. One of the selected works was “In C” by the California Minimalist composer Terry Riley. Instead of a fixed score, each member of the orchestra is given a sheet with 53 short, numbered musical phrases all based on “C” and lasting anywhere from a half-beat to 32 beats. The individual players take turns, extemporizing on one of the phrases, although there are some directions for how the progression flows. By design, this is a repetitive piece. But because each member has his or her moment, different color and textural patterns emerge. I found it riveting, although it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. (The man next to me said he thought it sounded like a “broken record.” He wouldn’t have liked the Philip Glass pieces The Knights have performed, either.)
On top of this already individualistic piece, members of The Knights added theatrics by moving on and off stage, switching chairs, and in some cases even switching instruments. So that visually, the audience witnessed an ebb and flow of actual musicians that paralleled the ebb and flow of the varying tempos and volume, as well as individual renditions of the repeated musical phrases. Throughout this drama, there were dozens of shared looks and smiles between the various participants, especially when one of them would take the music in an unexpected harmonic direction.
A friend of ours who joined us for the Central Park concert commented after the closing selection, Haydn’s Symphony No. 8 (“Le Soir”): “This group is so fresh.” Freshness is a very good description of not just the modern works, but also the works of the old masters. By weaving the old with the new, and viewing all with a fresh eye, makes classical music not just exciting, but relevant and personal. As The Los Angeles Times recently said, “They are the future of classical music.” I second that motion.
You can hear The Knights in a benefit performance at the Mead Memorial Chapel in Waccabuc, Sunday, September 23 at 3 p.m. Brooklyn Rider has upcoming concerts September 13 at 8 p.m. at the Music Workshop in Williamsburg, and October 21 at 4 p.m. at the Howland Cultural Center in Beacon, N.Y.