Knights, Ma Share Blithe Spirit At Ravinia Festival

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma performing Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme with the Knights at Ravinia.  (Performance photos by Patrick Gipson/Ravinia Festival)
Cellist Yo-Yo Ma performing Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme with the Knights at the Ravinia Festival.
(Performance photos by Patrick Gipson/Ravinia Festival)
By Daniel Hautzinger

HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. – On the basis of name alone, one would expect the New York City-based chamber orchestra the Knights to be vainglorious and buttoned-up (or stiflingly armor-suited). But the ensemble of thirty-some musicians is the opposite, instead motivated by a democratic, relaxed spirit of camaraderie. In a concert at the Ravinia Festival on Aug. 21, their enthusiasm and pleasure in performing repertoire from Mozart to more recent works was obvious from their beaming faces and eager glances across the ensemble.

Eric Jacobsen conducts the Knights at Ravinia.
Eric Jacobsen conducts the Knights at Ravinia.

That joy in music makes the Knights an ideal collaborator for Yo-Yo Ma, who joined the group as soloist in Tchaikovsky’s blithesome Variations on a Rococo Theme for cello and orchestra. Ma’s beatific smile found its analogue in his courtly shaping of the theme, while an engrossing cadenza and the ensuing doleful section darkened the mood before a frolicking finale.

After much thunderous applause and cheering, Ma returned for a burnished encore, Piazzolla’s Oblivion, full of sensuous sobs, accompanied by the Knights’ strings.

The lightness of the Tchaikovsky animated the entire wide-ranging program. But the Knights, known for adventurous programming, found other unifying factors in both this concert and their performance the previous night with soprano Dawn Upshaw.

The Upshaw program presented three pieces inspired by different American locales: Ives’ Three Places in New England, Stravinsky’s Concerto in E-flat (Dumbarton Oaks), and Maria Schneider’s Grammy-winning Winter Morning Walks, which was written for Upshaw. It also included a David Bruce arrangement of two John Dowland laments and an arrangement by Knights hornist Michael P. Atkinson of music from Sufjan Stevens’ Zodiac-inspired album Run Rabbit Run.

Ma takes bows with conductor Jacobsen.
Ma takes a bow with conductor Jacobsen.

The Zodiac and the stars twinkled in the first half of the Thursday program as well. Karlheinz Stockhausen’s 1974-5 Leo from Tierkreis: 12 Melodien der Sternzeichen (Zodiac: Twelve Melodies of the Star Signs), in an arrangement for septet by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw, presented a striking motif on violin over tonal, rhythmic pulsing that wouldn’t have been out of place in a piece from the past decade. Unfortunately, Ariana Kim’s melodic violin lines were barely discernible over the too-loud background of the rest of the ensemble.

Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 (“Jupiter”) had a more tenuous connection to the heavens through its nickname of uncertain provenance. The Knights take a unique approach to Classical repertoire. They attempt to revitalize older works by shedding the portentousness that pieces have accrued and playing them as if they were new. And the orchestra is often successful: Their zeal in the opening Allegro Vivace and final Molto Allegro invigorated Mozart’s playful and glorious music.

They also strive for the intimacy of chamber music, which they certainly achieved in the second movement. But their desire to perform as if among friends in an informal setting also causes some rough edges. The tenderness of that second movement was stopped just short of transcendence by a few messy entrances and chord changes. Conductor Eric Jacobsen’s brisk tempo in the finale was breathtaking and vivacious, but resulted in blurry passage work. All told, however, the freshness of the Knights made for idiosyncratic and lively Mozart. And their energy and informality suited them well to the rest of the program, which again featured geographically inspired pieces.

Boccherini’s String Quintet in C Major, G.324, performed at Ravinia by a full string orchestra, is subtitled “The music of the night streets of Madrid,” and imitates folk songs and styles of that city. Amiable tunes floated over strummed accompaniments, as if a dashing guitarist were serenading his lover by moonlight. A snare drum endowed the driving ending with a martial feel, depicting the night guard slowly disappearing into the distance.

Members of the Knights' wind section performing at the Ravinia Festival.
Members of the Knights’ wind section performing at Ravinia.

Spanish inflections also peppered Darius Milhaud’s Le boeuf sur le toit (The Ox on the Roof). In this perfect vehicle for the Knights, Brazilian songs dance around a rowdy melody of Milhaud’s for an irreverent carnival. The Knights’ verve and delight in the music’s capricious antics transformed what could easily be a corny work into a fantastical, absurd romp.

Such repertoire is where the Knights truly shine. Vivacity and fun are often lacking in the classical world today, where hoary tradition looms over the concert hall and intimidates new audiences. Rough edges or not, the Knights’ exciting programming, relaxed feel, and sheer joy in music are a great way to bring those new audiences in, and to have a rollicking good time while doing it.

Daniel Hautzinger is entering his third year in the double degree program at Oberlin College and Conservatory, studying history and piano. He is currently‘s Young Writer Fellow.