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The Knights Make History With Beethoven and Janacek at the Naumburg Bandshell

Last night at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park was a welcome return for one of New York’s most enduring cosmopolitan traditions. This was a particularly clever installment. It’s been done before: pairing Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata with Janacek’s String Quartet No. 1, “Kreutzer Sonata.” A Naumburg Concert favorite, chamber orchestra the Knights worked several levels of meta with new symphonic arrangements of both: the former a chart by violinist Colin Jacobsen, the latter a collaboration between his brother Eric and Knights horn player Mike Atkinson.

Orchestral scores for both works go back as far as Tschaikovsky, who did it with Beethoven. Likewise, there have been plenty of programs pairing both of the original pieces. But yesterday evening’s concert might have been the first time two orchestral versions of both have been played on the same bill. It turned out to be as colorful as expected, considering the ensemble’s penchant for surprise.

They opened with a Colin Jacobsen piece, playfully titled Kreutzings, rising from dizzyingly dissociative layers through jaunty microtonal glissandos from around the ensemble, to a coyly contrapuntal waltz. Flickers of each of the night’s main composers bubbled to the surface occasionally as the strings joined in precise, steady eighth notes while winding their way out.

Jacobsen, celebrating his birthday, served as soloist in the Beethoven. Crisp, elegant cheer interchanged with a little suspense and a bustling freshness that veered toward the raw side in the opening movement, confirming how well this material lends itself to orchestral sweep and majesty. Jacobsen quickly went for silkiness and ran with it amid anxious Vivaldiesque counterpoint. The restless thicket of low strings toward the end was a particularly juicy moment for the orchestra to sink their teeth into.

As if by design, a passing airplane introduced the andante second movement, bubbly woodwinds picking up the pace considerably before Jacobsen took over with a fine-toothed staccato. The bristling energy never dissipated, through lushness and a coyly pulsing bounce beneath the violinist’s spirals, flurries and animated pizzicato. Interestingly, the finale was on the spare and restrained side, despite the velocity: an urbane party that earned a contrastingly raucous standing ovation.

After the intermission, the ensemble tackled Anna Clyne’s Stride. Echoing the concert’s opening number, fleeting hints of Beethoven percolated amid tense close harmonies and microtones over a striding tempo flecked with rather suspenseful lulls and a long trajectory up to an anthemic, Dvorakian coda. Clyne doesn’t usually go for fullscale High Romantic: turns out she excels at it. This was a revelation.

Janacek’s first quartet follows the drama and familial mischegas of the Tolstoy tale, giving us an extra level of meta. Furtive Balkan chromatics quickly receded for an aching lushness and unexpected pageantry in the opening movement, only to reappear in a tensely gripping, Bernard Herrmann vein. Giving the anxious conversation in the third movement to the woodwinds paid magnificently poignant dividends on the way to an equally memorable stampede out. The ensemble encored with flutist Alex Sopp leading the group through a lickety-split, buoyant arrangement of a Taraf de Haidoucks Romany dance tune.

For those who missed the concert, the Knights managed to record the Beethoven and Janacek in February 2020, just under the wire before the fateful events that would crush the world a few weeks later. The next Naumburg Bandshell concert is on June 28 at 7:30 PM with the Handel and Haydn Society, led by violinist Aisslinn Nosky, playing works by Corelli, Vivaldi, Geminiani, Handel and Charles Avison.

Camerata Zurich Reinvent a Haunting Czech Classical Suite

The piece de resistance on Camerata Zurich‘s latest album of string orchesta pieces – streaming at Spotify – is Daniel Rumler’s arrangement of Janacek’s troubled, death-obsessed suite On an Overgrown Path. It’s gorgeously lush yet uncluttered music. Rumler subsumes much of the turbulence of the original piano version, switching out embellishments for emphatic melody. Group leader Igor Karsko opts for elegance and dynamics throughout the suite’s many picturesque interludes, broken down into 25 short segments here.

There’s also a spoken-word component. In her original French, poet Maia Brami reads the broodingly evocative text the orchestra had commissioned in 2017, imagining the composer reflecting on his life in a rather haunted woodland setting. There’s an English translation (but surprisingly, no original) in the album liner notes.

Wistfully lilting strolls rise to a sudden anguish, moody resonance alternating with gently animated phrasing to set the stage. The composer was haunted by the death of his daughter, who succumbed to illness at twenty, and the sense of loss is palpable throughout many twists and turns. Fond memories flicker into and then fade out of the mist The carefully modulated echo phrasing in the brief ninth segment is especially striking.

The opening work, Josef Suk’s Meditation on St. Wenceslas sounds absolutely nothing like the Christmas carol that’s been repurposed for a million playground rhymes over the years. This piece rises with a steady pulse to a troubled intensity: when Karsko gets the ensemble to dig in just thisclose to a shriek, a little after the midway point, the effect is viscerally breathtaking, especially considering the lushness on the way there. Suk wrote it as a thinly veiled freedom fighter anthem for Czech independence from the Habsburgs; its solemnity and defiance are just as relevant now, in a considerably more global context.

The group bring the album full circle with Dvorak’s Nocturne in B major, giving it a similarly insistent, even anxious pulse in places. Karsko raises the distinctness of the interweave of voices into strikingly sharp focus, a sonic layer cake.

Pianist David Greilsammer Plays a Brave, Impactful Program in an Uptown Crypt

Pianist David Greilsammer addressed an intimate Harlem crowd last night with the utmost seriousness. He took care to explain that he typically never introduces the music on the bill since he wants it to speak for itself.

But this was an unusual program. He pondered the viability of playing organ or harpsichord works on the piano. He addressed the need to reaffirm classical music’s relevance, to be true to how historically radical and transgressive much of it is. Perhaps most importantly, he asserted, a performer ought to put his or her heart and soul into the music rather than maintaining a chilly distance.

That close emotional attunement came into vivid focus with the uneasy, insistent poignancy and emphatic/lingering contrasts of Janacek’s suite On the Overgrown Path, which Greilsammer interpolated within segments of works by Froberger, Mozart, C.P.E. Bach, Jean-Fery Rebel and a moodily dynamic world premiere by Ofer Pelz. Greilsammer averred that he’d been inspired to do this by a nightmare where he found himself stuck in a labyrinth.

Was this shtick? He considered that question too. As he saw it, that’s a judgment call. Mashing up segments of various composers’ works isn’t a new concept, but it is a minefield. An ensemble at a major New York concert space took a stab at a similar program last year and failed, epically. By the audience reaction – a standing ovation in the rich, reverberating sonics of the crypt at the Church of the Intercession – Greilsammer earned a hard victory.

Just the idea of trying to wrangle less-than-awkward segues between the baroque and the modern sends up a big red flag. But Greilsammer pulled it off! At about the midpoint of Janacek’s surreal, disorienting nightmare gallery walk, there’s a wrathful, exasperated low-lefthand storm, and Greilsammer didn’t hold back. Likewise, Froberger’s notes to the performer are to deliver the stately grace of his Tombstone suite with as much rubato as possible, and the pianist did exactly that, with a similar if vastly more subtle wallop.

That piece bridged the gap to thoughtful, purposeful, considered takes of the unfolding layers of Mozart’s Fantasy in C Minor and C.P.E. Bach’s Fantasy in F Sharp Minor. The Pelz premiere made an ominously lustrous centerpiece. It was only at the end, where each coda took its turn, that the feel of dominoes falling away crept in: maybe next time, one coda would be enough, considering how decisively each of these pieces ends. Thematically, it all made sense, pulling bits and pieces of one’s life together on a long, tortuous path that finally reached a triumphant clearing.

The concert’s organizers’ url is http://www.deathofclassical.com (they’re held in a church crypt, get it?). There’s also food and wine, a very generous supply, at these shows, conceived to dovetail with the music. A firecracker 2014 Galil Mountain Viognier, from Galilee, with its sparkle on the tongue and lingering scorched-butter burn at the end, was the highlight. An impressively diverse date-night crowd seemed as content with it as they were with the music.

A Raptly Thematic Lincoln Center Concert by All-Star Choir Cantus

One of Minnesota-based all-male choir Cantus‘ signature traits is theme programs. As one concertgoer put it, they can get a lot wilder than they were Sunday at Lincoln Center. Then again, this program was part of the spiritually-themed White Light Festival, continuing here through November 11. There are plenty of groups who mine the standard Renaissance repertoire, some who specialize in rediscovering treasures from that era, but Cantus are just as likely to juxtapose the ancient with the most current and make it all flow together seamlessly, and in that respect this was a characteristic performance.

They began with a precise, pulsing, even bouncy take of a twelfth century Perotinus piece, then a more traditional, somberly contemplative one by Josquin Des Prez. With its intricately echoing counterpoint, Randall Tompson’s 1940 Alleluia made a good segue, especially when the group hit an unexpectedly celebratory peak right before the end. In a way, it brought the early part of the concert full circle.

Jumping ahead sixty years to a lush, ambered take of Eric Whitacre’s aptly titled Lux Aurumque, they followed that with a bucolic 1942 nocturne by Swedish composer Hugo Alfven. Negotiating the tricky metrics, sudden dynamic shifts and otherworldly close harmonies of a diptych by Estonian composer Veljo Tormis was no easy task, but the group made it look almost easy. In a choir, the individuals on the low and the top end always end up standing out, and this group was no exception, basses Chris Foss and Samuel Green paired against tenors Paul John Rudoi, Shahzore Shah, Aaron Humble and Blake Morgan. But the midrange benefited especially from the efforts of tenor Zachary Colby and baritone Matthew Goinz; Matthew Tintes, in particular, showed off an unexpectedly far-reaching range for a baritone.

From there they moved through brief works celebrating the comfort of home, or home country, via works by Sibelius, Dvorak, Janacek and Kodaly – the latter being the Hungarian national song, more or less, awash in a warmly consonant harmony that hardly seemed possible, from someone with such a thorny repertoire. It was music to get lost in. The group closed on a much more acerbic note, maybe as to draw the crowd out of their dream state, with a 2006 diptych by Edie Hill and encored by going deep into the 19th century hymnal. Cantus’ current tour continues onward: the next stop along the way is November 13 at 7 PM at Central Christian Center, 5th & Virginia in Joplin, Missouri.