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January 4, 2008

Toe-Tapping Fun: The Knights at Carnegie Hall

On December 7 I attended a fascinating and captivating concert at Weill Recital Hall in Carnegie Hall. I had not encountered the group before - a string orchestra known as The Knights - and I did not know quite what to expect. The program looked varied, to say the least - Lutoslawski's Overture for Strings, two world premieres (the second a brief harpsichord solo) of very attractive pieces by Philip Bigar, a Haydn keyboard concerto, a Torelli concerto grosso, Bartók's Divertimento for Strings, and some Roma Gypsy songs...

Indeed, the program was varied and interesting. But the most striking thing about the evening was the nature of the music-making. Here were musicians clearly having a ball, deeply involved in the music and in each other, exchanging grins with each other, or understanding glances at a noteworthy turn of phrase, and in the process connecting with the audience - the hall was virtually full - in a way one hardly ever encounters in concert life. It has become a cliché to observe that many of the classical performances we hear seem to lack joy, a sense of discovery or enchantment on the part of the musicians. That was stunningly not the case at this concert.

Except for the cellos, the bass and the harpsichordist, all of the players stood, changing stands (and even sections) between pieces, so that there was no clear hierarchy. In fact, the evening resembled nothing so much as a jam session amongst friends, which we in the audience were allowed to feel a part of. It was not unlike the experience of a jazz club, despite the formality of a concert hall setting. The music-making had an amazing energy, along with tenderness and hushed beauty when that was called for. The mystery of the second movement of the Bartók Divertimento held the listener spellbound, almost afraid to breathe and break the mood.

Different members of the group occasionally chatted with the audience - in some cases telling us more about the music they were about to play, in a few cases letting us in on the dedication these musicians have to this group: one came from Belgium and another from Amsterdam just to participate in this concert. Oh yes, and one came all the way from Milwaukee!

I've written here before about the need to see an end to some of the rigidity, predictability, stiffness, and almost religiously ritualized atmosphere of our concert halls. I have commented that musicians should be aware of their need to make a connection with audience members. I have written about the need to broaden the repertoire with music that is fun, light, and entertaining - and to mix it with the more serious music that makes up such a large percentage of our programming. This concert did all of that and more. The Roma Gypsy tunes were of course a perfect foil for Bartók, a composer who derived much of his inspiration from just such material, but they were also pure, unadulterated fun - toe-tapping fun. And that is precisely what the audience was doing.

The shouts and whistles that rang through staid Weill Recital Hall were proof, if any was needed, of the depth of the connection that this program established between performers, music, and audience. And the age diversity of the audience was also encouraging and refreshing to see. Much of the innovation that will enliven and enrich our concert life is taking place either at small symphony orchestras, or small ensembles like this one. It is wonderful to experience. We need more ensembles like The Knights - and we need the musical attitude of The Knights to spread like a wonderful virus through the music world.

Posted by hfogel at January 4, 2008 11:56 AM

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I'm glad you enjoyed this concert so much.
I would be glad to
hear this group.
However,I must
respectfully disagree with your description
of mainstream concerts.
I do not think they
are that kind of dreary
experience you
describe.If they were,
nobody would go to concerts.I have heard
many performances by our leading orchestras
that were just as enjoyable as the concert
you attended must
have been.There are
no doubt some,cynical,
musicians in orchestras,
but they are far from
a majority,and you can
find people like that in any field.I am sure
that many concertgoers
would agree with me.

Posted by: robert berger at January 5, 2008 3:32 PM