Shaham joins the Knights for lively program at Harris Theater

Fri Feb 19, 2016 at 1:38 pm

By Michael Cameron

Gil Shaham performed Prokofiev with the Knights Thursday night at the Harris Theater.
Gil Shaham performed Prokofiev with the Knights Thursday night at the Harris Theater.

Faced with brutal competition for dwindling audience dollars, each new generation of classical musicians spawns a few intrepid artists eager to reinvent the concert experience.

It’s a process that often propagates distracting gimmickry, but the Brooklyn-based Knights seem to have found a sweet spot with programs that meld the familiar and novel, giving their fan base a taste of discovery with each performance.   

While the Knights have been a favorite at Ravinia in recent years, their concert Thursday at Harris Theater marked their belated downtown debut. It was a relatively safe program by their standards, and judging by the near-capacity crowd and enthusiastic response, one would expect local presenters to take heed.

Led by the brothers Colin (violin) and Eric Jacobsen (conductor and cellist), the Knights are renowned for their voracious musical appetite, performing works from a wide range of sources and eras. Initially the duo collaborated with a few choice musicians in explorations of chamber music repertoire, but over time they have expanded to small orchestra dimensions for many of their concerts and recordings. They now identify as an “orchestral collective,” drawing from the cream of New York freelance players,

The Jacobsen brothers’ interest in remote corners of Baroque and Classical repertoire has been a notable calling card, and their winning reconstruction of Jean-Féry Rebel’s Les Caractéres de la Danse was a delight from start to finish. Aptly described by Eric as an “18th century playlist,” this suite of fifteen connected dances brimmed with hairpin turns in meter and tempo, all negotiated cheerfully and flawlessly with only minimal intervention from concertmaster Colin. While not advertised as such, the Knights’ string sections morph into an historically informed “period” ensemble for Baroque and early Classical music. Their light touch and gossamer, vibrato-free tone were a perfect fit for the graceful, easy lilt of Rebel’s infectious tunes.

Beethoven’s orchestra was considerably larger than the Knights’ touring ensemble, though standard practice has allowed for somewhat reduced forces for the some of the composer’s even-numbered symphonies.  But the mighty Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”) fairly begs for heft, and as riveting as portions of Eric Jacobsen’s reading was, the tradeoffs were sometimes too much to overcome.

It was a pleasure to hear the winds project forcefully, a revelatory experience for audiences used to the often bland homogenization of modern orchestral practice. But even with superb playing of the musicians and the conductor’s lucid insights with the composer’s massive structure, the dramatic complexities of the first movement struggled to take shape with the underpowered strings. The same could be said of the second movement funeral march, though there were moments of deeply affecting poignancy. The scherzo and finale were far more satisfying, the chamber music intimacy paying dividends in clarity and humor.

A critical element of the Knight’s rise to prominence has been their ability to draw top drawer virtuosos for collaborations. Violinist and Champaign native Gil Shaham joined the ensemble for a lean, bracing, and playful account of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2. Shaham and Jacobson shared a common vision and an easy rapport, though the grins and mugging were occasionally distracting. Given the size of the ensemble, it was surprising to hear occasional balance concerns, most notably in the first movement. Shaham was most impressive in the second movement, coaxing a stream of lyrical outpouring from his 1699 “Countess Polignac” Stradivarius.

Colin Jacobsen joined Shaham in a glittering, boisterous account of Pablo de Sarasate’s violin duo Navarra.

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