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Enthusiastic Explorations

New Worlds: The Knights

May 11, 2010

When considering this well-performed recording, don’t place too much significance in its title, which, according to the liner notes, relates back to the theme of last year’s Dresden Music Festival, where the New York–based Knights presented some of these selections. Geographically, historically, and stylistically, the five compositions are stretched so far that they defy any attempt at a defensible programmatic theme, though the Germans may have bought into the cutesy, New World concept more quickly than those of us who actually live here.

What’s really rather new and worth celebrating on this CD is the fresh force and consistent skill that this group of young musicians brings to material both familiar and unfamiliar, laudable and less so. The Knights’ dynamic range is suggested by the contrasts between the luminescent tranquility of the opening and closing tracks — Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question and the Coda to Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring — and the boisterousness and angularity of some of what comes after and before, namely Gabriela Lena Frank’s Leyendas – An Andean Walkabout and Osvaldo Golijov’s Last Round. The ensemble bravely meets the challenge of Frank’s modernist time signatures and tempos, but, notwithstanding their efforts, the compositional direction of the piece, despite its supposed grounding in ethnic Latin American instrumentation and folk music, remains elusive and unsatisfying.

Listen to the Music

Ives, The Unanswered Question (II)

Copeland, Appalachian Spring: VIII. Coda

The Golijov, on the other hand, is less desperately macho and more structurally impressive than your average tango-based creation, with melodic statements divided handsomely between sections of the strings. The Knights evoke the breathtaking coordination and sustained energy of tango fanatics, and work the “special effects” of glisses and col legno with faultless coordination.

Interpolated between the South American elements is Antonin Dvořák’s setting of his Silent Woods (Klid) for cello and orchestra (created during his American sojourn), whose solo is sensitively and delicately sounded by the German cellist and former Knights collaborator Jan Vogler. The ensemble paints this sylvan study in rich but subtle colors.

Of course, the Copland provides the most obvious opportunity to compare the Knights to other orchestras of advanced institutional and individual vintage. Their tangible enthusiasm and affection very much brighten this Spring, and the ensemble’s sections seem to dance under the direction of conductor Eric Jacobsen. These youths are serving music very well.

Jeff Kaliss has featured and reviewed classical, jazz, rock, and world musics and other entertainment for the San Francisco Chronicle and a host of other regional, national, international, and web-based publications. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, and is the author of I Want to Take You Higher: The Life and Times of Sly & the Family Stone (Backbeat Books) and numerous textbook and encyclopedia entries, album liner notes, and festival program notes.