The Knights hail from Brooklyn. The mostly young, stylish, and immensely talented group of musicians play classical music, and they play it with a sense of enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity that many larger, more formally structured orchestras no longer seem all that interested in presenting to audiences. A Knights concert usually features a combination of music that’s old and new - often brand new. Their performances have a defined arc, with the pieces presented in an order that creates a sense of flow, taking the listener a journey or presenting them with the building blocks from which they can create their own understanding of how the music connects, or how the pieces intersect. The experience is narrated by one or both of the group’s artistic directors, the brothers Colin and Eric Jacobsen, adding context and points of reference, often with humor. Their approach is neither pedantic nor pretentious, but comes across as if the Jacobsens want nothing more than to make sure the listener knows what they found so interesting and worthwhile about the music that they put it on a program. That makes the resulting program largely a subjective endeavor, and not one designed primarily to sell tickets, check off boxes, make them eligible for certain grants, or garner acclaim based on non-musical considerations or politics, all of which play a hand in the increasingly dull and repetitive seasons being announced by many of the country’s major orchestras, most of which are desperately trying to find ways to fill large auditoriums amid demographic and economic trends that likely spell their doom. There’s been a lot experimentation around how to recreate the classical music experience during the last 10 years (some might rightfully point back even further to innovations during the 1960s and 70s by Bernstein and Ozawa), but after more than a decade of performing as an ensemble, The Knights seem to have really figured out how to do it right.
All of these things floated through my mind while I watched and listened to them performing in the Music Room at Georgetown’s Dumbarton Oaks on Monday evening, the second of two sold-out concerts on the heels of the group’s European tour with the mandolinist Avi Avital. The intimate Music Room can hold maybe a couple of hundred people, and has both the architectural and curated splendor befitting a distinguished institution. It’s the kind of space that invites curiosity for its contents and admiration for whatever’s associated with it. These factors function like an instant form of validation, similar to the way concert halls and opera houses impart a sense of importance about what takes place within them, only on a more intimate and personal scale, and without the sense of formality. It probably lacks the amenities and layout that make performing there an easy experience for a group larger than four persons, but I imagine it must be a marvelous space in which to perform . All of which was amplified to 11 by the Knights’ performance, which left me convinced the future of classical music concerts will eventually resemble one of their concerts. And why shouldn’t they? Who doesn’t want to experience challenging repertoire spanning centuries, played by engaged musicians, presented informally in aesthetically lovely surroundings?
The first half featured (in order) music by Caroline Shaw and Kinan Azmeh, followed in the second half by Vivaldi, Thomas Adès , a Ligeti piece arranged by Knight and horn player Michael A. Atkinson, and closed with Bob Haggart and Ray Bauduc’s “Big Noise from Winnetka,” arranged by another Knight, the bassist Shawn Conley. Let’s recap that: a piece by one of today’s leading young female composers; two pieces by a living Syrian clarinetist and composer (performing with the group); an obscure work from the most beloved composer of the Baroque era; one from one of today’s foremost living composers; another from one of the 20th Century’s most revered avant-garde composers; an inventive jazzy number that was covered by Bing Crosby and Gene Krupa among others; and a hand in the arranging from two members of the orchestra. Has a major orchestra ever programmed anything like that as part of a regular subscription series? The comments section is open if you know of any.
The most important part is that it works, and it works organically. Although I didn’t care for everything on the program (Adès’ Chamber Symphony primarily), all of it held my interest enough that I cared about what The Knights were doing with it from a musical perspective. I also appreciated the opportunity to hear these pieces performed live. The highlight was Azmeh’s Concertino Grosso, which has a riot of tempo changes and spaces for improvisation that led to fascinating, even thrilling exchanges between the musicians. It’s shifting harmonic structure was a kaleidoscope built out of classical, Middle-eastern, jazz, and a bit of Widespread Panic (guest guitarist Kyle Sanna was the perfect foil for Azmeh’s expressive clarinet and the orchestra’s often fever pitch playing).
Vivaldi’s Sinfonia in B Minor, “Al Santo Sepolcro," felt a very dark world away from the composer’s more popular works, but was still very obviously Vivaldi. Capacious and brooding, it should be the Vivaldi that future film scorers use in place of The Four Seasons, which needs a thirty or forty year time-out. Ligeti Split is “an orchestrated reimagining of Ligeti’s  piece Hungarian Rock for Harpsichord,” and as such it’s entirely possible that it’s supposed to sound like a mash-up of Ligeti, Copeland, and Lizée , conceived with the aid of lysergic acid, and I mean that in the best possible way.
Learn more about The Knights and view their performance calendar on their website.
Photo by Shervin Lainez .