Dawn Upshaw and The Knights offer a worthy and eclectic evening at Ravinia

Thu Aug 21, 2014 at 1:13 pm

By Gerald Fisher

Dawn Upshaw performed Maria Schneider's "Winter Morning Walks" with The Knights Wednesday night at Ravinia's Martin Theater.
Dawn Upshaw performed Maria Schneider’s “Winter Morning Walks” with The Knights Wednesday night at Ravinia’s Martin Theater.

The Knights returned to Ravinia’s Martin Theater for their fifth season Wednesday night with soprano Dawn Upshaw as soloist and a mixed bag of music including two new works by genre-bending musicians Sufjan Stevens and Maria Schneider.

The New York based instrumental ensemble presented these pieces on the second half of the program, which opened with the Orchestral Set No. 1: Three Places in New England by Charles Ives. The chamber orchestra version was perfectly suited to the size of the ensemble and the venue. Knights co-founder conductor Eric Jacobsen directed a solid performance of the three short but characteristically eventful sections, which range in tone from the placid to the rambunctious. The slimmed-down orchestration brought out some excellent solo work, especially the fine trumpet playing, but also revealed some wayward intonation in the strings near the coda.

The second work on the program was apparently a last-minute substitution: string consort versions of two Laments by Dowland, which replaced the scheduled vocal arrangements to feature Dawn Upshaw. The music bore little relation to the rest of the program and could have been dispensed with altogether.

The “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto in E-flat by Stravinsky was altogether a sprightlier affair, with the artists leaning into this Neoclassical charmer in three movements with ample solo opportunities for the 15-member chamber ensemble.

Sufjan Stevens is a many-faceted American singer-songwriter/composer who derives his musical inspiration from a wide variety of sources, as shown in the Suite from Run Rabbit Run, which was inspired by the Chinese zodiac. Ensemble member Michael Atkinson reworked this music from a string quartet version into one for a larger string ensemble, which performed the four short movements of this good-humored music with gusto.

“The Year of the Ox” begins with a gentle minimalist flavor which morphs into scrapings and glissandi. “Enjoy your Rabbit” starts playfully in the violas and builds up to a rollicking rhythm. “Year of Our Lord” has a rich chordal atmosphere, somber and deep-toned. “Year of the Boar” is driving and forwardly impulsive, with dramatic and lyrical interludes coming to a sudden end. The set was enthusiastically received by the sizable audience.

Maria Schneider is a composer with roots in jazz and her vocal work, Winter Morning Walks, employs jazz musicians Jay Anderson, bass, Scott Robinson, clarinet, and Frank Kimbrough, piano in addition to the instrumental chamber ensemble.

But of course soprano Dawn Upshaw is the main focus of the nine pieces, settings of austere poems by Pulitzer-winning poet Ted Kooser.

Upshaw seemed to be having some vocal difficulties Wednesday night, but her innate professionalism and ability to deliver a fully-realized performance overcame any technical problems. Her diction and interpretive flair made the most of these lovely and quite moving songs.

The gentle music ranged from the stillness of the opening through a sweetly playful interlude followed by a walking-paced lullaby with a jazz piano filigree underpinning it. “I Saw a Dust-Devil This Morning,” was trivial, but magical, “My Wife and I Walk the Cold Road,” proved romantic, almost like a Sondheim song. The songs unwind like a country road, and the final lyric “The sun waited for me at the end of the road” made the statement for the whole project.

Yo-Yo Ma will join The Knights 8 p.m. Thursday at Ravinia;s Martin Theatre. The program includes “Leo” from Stockhausen’s Tierkreis, Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, Boccherini’s String Quintet In C major, Milhaud’s Le boeuf sur le toit, and Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme. ravinia.org; 847-266-5100.

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