Review: The Knights make first Atlanta appearance an impressive one with soloist Gil Shaham

Shaham and The Knights perform Jonathan Leshnoff's new Violin Concerto.
Shaham and The Knights perform Jonathan Leshnoff's new Violin Concerto.
Shaham and The Knights perform Jonathan Leshnoff's new Violin Concerto.
Shaham and The Knights perform Jonathan Leshnoff’s new Violin Concerto.

On Saturday at Emory University’s Schwartz Center for Performing Arts, the innovative Brooklyn-based chamber orchestra The Knights made their Atlanta debut, performing music by Rebel, Leshnoff, Sarasate, Wagner, Stevens and Dvořák, along with guest violinist Gil Shaham. They performed a similar program on Sunday afternoon at the University of Georgia’s Hodgson Concert Hall.

Artistic directors Colin Jacobsen (concertmaster and composer) and Eric Jacobsen (conductor and cellist) developed The Knights as an “orchestral collective” that is flexible in size and eclectic repertory that shakes up typical orchestral programming in an inviting way.

The concert opened with “Les charactères de la danse” (1715) by French composer Jean-Féry Rebel (1666-1747). The 14 movements, dances with the exception of a Prelude and two Sonate in the new Italian style of the day, were played without any pause between, and demonstrated that The Knights were able to capture their style well on modern instruments.

Jonathan Leshnoff has been a strong signal on the radar of Atlanta’s classical music audiences since the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performed his Flute Concerto in March 2014, with flutist Jeffrey Khaner as soloist. The ASO then premiered Leshnoff’s Symphony No. 2 this past November and with the ASO Chorus will premiere his new oratorio, “Zohar,” April 14 and 16 at Symphony Hall paired with Brahms’ “Ein deutsches Requiem.” The ASO and Chorus will then take that program to Carnegie Hall on April 30.

Given all that, it was especially intriguing that Shaham and The Knights would program Leshnoff’s new Violin Concerto in their Atlanta stop on their tour. This was the only the second performance of the concerto, the world premiere having been given by these same musicians on Valentine’s Day at Shiver Hall in Baltimore.

Leshnoff’s concerto, beautifully rendered by Shaham and the orchestra, was a delightful discovery. It has only two movements: a slow, somewhat simple first movement that allows the sound of the solo violin to bloom above an unfolding orchestral texture, and a fast, rhythmic but fun second movement. For this listener, Leshnoff’s concerto proved one of those rare “I wish I’d written that” experiences, the most immediately attractive of that composer’s works that I have heard live.

The first half of the concert ended with a flashy showpiece for two violins and orchestra,“Navarre,” Op 33 (1889), by Pablo de Sarasate. Shaham and Colin Jacobsen were the solo violinists, in a playfully sympatico, crowd-pleasing performance.

There is more to the collaboration between Shaham and The Knights than concert appearances. Shaham’s latest CD, 1930s Violin Concertos Vol 2, is being released later this week on the Canary Classics label. It includes The Knights as the orchestra for Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2, a work which appears on some of this tour’s other programs, along with the Violin Concerto No. 2 of Béla Bartók, which Shaham recorded with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra.

A lucid performance of Richard Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll” kicked off the second half of the concert. That was followed by a transcription of 21st-century electronic work by Sufjan Stevens.

Stevens is a Brooklyn-based songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. The music from his 2001 electronica album Enjoy Your Rabbit, inspired by the animals of the Chinese Zodiac, was rearranged for the Osso String Quartet by a handful of composers. Those versions were ultimately recorded as a new CD released on Stevens’ own Asthmatic Kitty label in 2009, entitled Run Rabbit Run.

Michael P. Atkinson, horn player for The Knights, was the first composer to arrange any of the music for Osso, four of Stevens’ 14 original tracks, for a performance at the 2007 Music Now festival in Cincinnati: “Year of the Ox,” “Enjoy Your Rabbit,” “Year of Our Lord” and “Year of the Boar.”

On the one hand, that effort evolved into the Run Rabbit Run album (with Atkinson contributing one more arrangement). On the other, Atkinson further expanded his first four arrangements twice for the Knights as the “Suite from Run Rabbit Run” heard in this concert.

The evening concluded with another suite, Antonin Dvořák’s Czech Suite in D major, Op. 39 (1879), the most mainstream work on the program, but which gave the audience the satisfying bang at the end that they crave with its speedy “Furiant” finale.

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