Bastille Day at Ozawa Hall: The Knights celebrate Egalité, Fraternité, as tragedy strikes France — again
Lenox — There were stirrings in the audience before the official beginning of this Bastille Day, concert. The Knights violinist, Guillaume Pirard, silently stepped to the front of the stage and began quietly playing La Marseillaise, the French National Anthem. By the time he finished, it seemed as if everyone had heard at least a whisper of the news of another civic tragedy in France, the mass murder of scores of adults and children celebrating their national holiday on the Riviera in Nice.
As Pirard reached the last phrases, most people were standing, and many were singing,
“Allons enfants de la Patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé!
Contre nous de la tyrannie,
L’étendard sanglant est levé, (bis)
Entendez-vous dans les campagnes
Mugir ces féroces soldats?
Ils viennent jusque dans vos bras
Égorger vos fils, vos compagnes!
Aux armes, citoyens,
Formez vos bataillons,
Qu’un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons!”
(“Arise, children of the Fatherland,
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us tyranny’s
Bloody banner is raised, (repeat)
Do you hear, in the countryside,
The roar of those ferocious soldiers?
They’re coming right into your arms
To cut the throats of your sons, your women!
To arms, citizens,
Form your battalions,
Let’s march, let’s march!
Let an impure blood
Soak our fields!”)
Then, co-conductor and cellist, Erik Jacobsen, walked to the front and spoke briefly of the tragedy, dedicating the concert to their friends in France.
This, in retrospect, was especially fitting for the concert that followed. Bastille Day celebrates the end of the feudal era in France. In reaction to the constraints imposed by the hierarchical organization of nearly all contemporary orchestras, The Knights, according to the program notes, intentionally formed themselves as “an orchestral collective, flexible in size and repertory, dedicated to transforming the concert experience, engaging listeners and defying boundaries with programs that showcase the players’ roots in the classical tradition and passion for musical discovery. . .The Knights evolved from late-night chamber music reading parties with friends at the home of violinist Colin Jacobsen and cellist Eric Jacobsen. . . The unique camaraderie within the group retains the intimacy and spontaneity of chamber music in performance.” (Program notes, p. 41)
This is not to say that the accomplished musicians in orchestras like the Boston Symphony are regarded as serfs. Indeed, from what I know, they are treated as professionals, indeed as members, and addressed respectfully. But many of my musician friends, especially those who survive from gig to gig doing “general business,” relying on the ungenerous handouts of bookers, managers, leaders, and club-owners, will know what this means.
A tuba virtuoso of my acquaintance, who won an appointment in a front-rank American orchestra on the threshold of its bankruptcy, tells of being approached at a rehearsal by an officer of the orchestra’s board of trustees. During the run-through of a piece that wasn’t scored for tuba, the musician was backstage, reading a book. The trustee demanded that he justify what he was doing. The musician replied that he was waiting for the next work, in which the composer included a tuba in the orchestration. The officer asserted that he should perform janitorial duties when he wasn’t working as a musician, rather than to waste his and the orchestra’s limited resources. You get the drift. Is this feudalism or what?
Here was a different kind of Tanglewood orchestral concert. Notwithstanding the size of the ensemble, it had the intimacy of a string quartet. The players appeared deeply to engage as individuals, displaying distinctive flourishes, bowings, and styles, all the while delighting both in colleagues’ contributions and the exquisite beauty of their group effort. Equality and fraternity elevated their performances to a sublime plane of musical artistry and interest.
Symphony No. 64 in A, Tempura mutantur, by Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), was offered by a conductor-less ensemble of 22 strings and woodwinds.
That unique camaraderie manifested beautifully in the first work of the evening, which also indicated the organizing theme of the evening: the ineluctable changes of time on the human experience.
Jacobsen, at the left in this drawing, is a virtuoso violinist/conductor, as well as composer, arranger, and richly in evidence here, respected musical and intellectual leader.
The Haydn, a ruminative work that eschews the straightforward thematic development with which audiences are familiar, shifts constantly across time. This demands a substantial effort to sustain the interest of the audience. Although eyes were on Colin Jacobsen for tempos, dynamics, starts and stops, there were many shared smiles and nods in response to the individual solos that Haydn scored across the ensemble.
Haydn himself gave the symphony its Latin nickname, from a traditional Latin adage: Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis Quomodo? Fit semper tempore peior homo. (“The times change, and we change with them. How? Time passing makes mankind worse.”)
Haydn composed the symphony toward the end of the musical and literary period that cultural historians characterize as Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress; late 1760’s to early 1780’s). This pre-Romantic movement encouraged extremes of emotion in reaction to the rationalism of the Enlightenment and its artistic influence.
The work begins pianissimo, and only subsequently announces in four pronounced chords a fragment of a first principal theme. This is a reversal of the form that Haydn had imprinted so successfully on such popular works as No. 44, known as Trauer (Mourning) and No. 46, in which an initial, clearly articulated question-and-answer structure orients the audience to what logically will follow. Had the Knights not displayed both clarity and dramatic expression, it might have been discombobulating, as it is for many audiences.
As it turned out, however, this was a most auspicious start. Striking dynamic nuances, piercing accents, and sharply sculpted phrases bespoke both passionate involvement and rigorous rehearsal. Individuality did not signify indiscipline. The Largo movement was marvelously slow and deeply felt. Between long phrases there were extended pauses. These began and ended as if by telepathy. Rather, it was a keen attention to Colin Jacobsen’s subtle cues and body language. The ensemble sound was lush and the shifts in volume gave real emotional weight to the playing.
The third movement, Menuetto, was strongly rhythmic, with another lovely and unexpected rhythmic touch of passing time. Much of the waltz time emphasized beats two and three, rather than one, up to very the last measure, which ended, unusually, on three. These odd emphases were communicated not only with credible dance feeling, but with genuine zest.
The final, Presto, movement also featured pauses, which allowed its forte chords to ring through the hall. A stormy and agitated middle section – Sturm und Drang! – gave way to contemplative, major-key phrases and a final re-cap of the initial theme leading to dramatic pause before the final cadence. The symphony was mysterious, perhaps, but ultimately satisfying, not least because of the brilliant ensemble playing by the Knights.
So it was, too, with Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 in B flat in the second half. Here, Colin Jacobsen had moved to the second violin grouping across from the two ranks of firsts. Eric Jacobsen, now positioned himself front and center on the cello, while Guillaume Pirard occupied the concertmaster’s chair. They seemed to play joint leadership roles.
Equally and deeply emotionally involved in the music, they didn’t appear to need to give any overt signaling to their colleagues. Rather, everyone just tuned in. The unity of the ensemble sound, the subtlety of the phrasing, and the dynamic variations were gorgeous. Only investments both in rehearsing and acute, constant listening could have produced this magical result. It was really thrilling to hear.
Flutist Sooyun Kim’s gold flute gave a woody, fat substance to the ensembles and displayed elegant eloquence in her solos. These were frequently reciprocated in song-like, Schubertian fashion, by the strings and woodwinds, with whom Kim also blended marvelously.
Bassoonist Mike Davis’s beautiful sound and exquisite natural vibrato lent grace to the contrapuntal Menuotto con moto movement, a rhythmic dance in ¾ time in the relative minor key. Contrabassist, Shawn Conley, who appeared to relish every moment of the entire performance, lent a lyrical feel to his legato passages and a lively verve and solidity to the bottom of the rhythm.
Far and away the most challenging work for the Knights and the audience was Crane Palimpsest by Gabriele Kahane (b. 1981).
This new work was conducted both by Erik Jacobsen, and the composer himself, an accomplished narrator-singer-pianist-guitarist. The chamber orchestra was augmented for this piece by contingent of fine brass and percussion players, who played important roles in a complex production that addressed the obsession of the poet, Hart Crane (1889-1932), with New York City’s Brooklyn Bridge.
Kahane explained that Crane rented the very apartment in Brooklyn Heights from which Washington Roebling, the son of the bridge’s original designer, J. A. Roebling, supervised its construction after his father died.
The text of the piece, he noted, added some of his own poetry to Crane’s. But as no text was provided to the audience, and neither Kahane’s diction nor the house amplification system was up to the task of getting the words across, the listener was left with uncertainty about how the poetry fit with the music.
But the soundscape was extraordinary. Kahane employed a whole bevy of effects that signaled machinery, light, water, the muscles and minds of men, and the glories and promise of transportation, with emphasis on transport.
Repeated, Copland-inspired polyrhythms and harmonies underpinned the verse, “I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene Never disclosed, but hastened to again, Foretold to other eyes on the same screen;”
Still richer harmonies and more polyrhythms, now adorned with temple blocks in the percussion, and watery orchestration illustrated the verse, “And Thee, across the harbor, silver-paced As though the sun took step of thee, yet left Some motion ever unspent in thy stride,— Implicitly thy freedom staying thee!”
Then, Kahane moved from the stand-up microphone to the piano, with its own mike, and played a few riffs reminiscent of Igor Stravinsky while continuing to recite the verse, both singing and in half-song, or Sprechtstimme. It was all very interesting, and one longed to see the text he was reading from on his iPad.
Stints on guitar and electric guitar blended with ever more engaging orchestration as the piece proceeded, with Kahane then back at the piano singing falsetto over simple repeated chords, backed by cellos and trombone glissandi.
Not to make too fine a point of it, the composition would have been more intelligible had this text, and its emendations, been provided. The poem speaks for itself. It’s about the mysteries of life, and its fleeting passage, in consonance with the arching theme of the Knights’ concert.
To Brooklyn Bridge
How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings
Then, with inviolate curve, forsake our eyes
As apparitional as sails that cross
Some page of figures to be filed away;
—Till elevators drop us from our day . . .
I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights
With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene
Never disclosed, but hastened to again,
Foretold to other eyes on the same screen;
And Thee, across the harbor, silver-paced
As though the sun took step of thee, yet left
Some motion ever unspent in thy stride,—
Implicitly thy freedom staying thee!
Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan.
Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks,
A rip-tooth of the sky’s acetylene;
All afternoon the cloud-flown derricks turn . . .
Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.
And obscure as that heaven of the Jews,
Thy guerdon . . . Accolade thou dost bestow
Of anonymity time cannot raise:
Vibrant reprieve and pardon thou dost show.
O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry,—
Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path—condense eternity:
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.
Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
The City’s fiery parcels all undone,
Already snow submerges an iron year . . .
O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God
The last two works of the concert were totally charming reconstructions of Bob Haggart’s and Ray Bauduc’s “Big Noise from Winnetka,” and Bob Dylan’s “The Times They are A-changing.” The first, arranged by bassist, Shaun Conley, featured as its centerpiece (as did the original recording) an extended solo by the drummer – on the strings of the bass! As did Haggart, Conley managed to play several wisps of melody. The response to this crowd-pleasing nonsense was what you might expect, but the real beauty part of the arrangement was the initial slow, Gypsy-like statement of the minor melody, performed with emotion and elan by Jane Cords-O’Hara. Tempo changes, police whistles, and flagrant pizzicato swinging by Conley added extra excitement and drive once the Big Noise got going.
In the Dylan, Gabriel Kahane sang in fine baritone, with the mezzo-soprano, Christine Courtin, who stepped forward from her violin chair. They sang with tremendous emotion, and they moved the musicians to exquisite solos, most notable of which came from the clarinet of Agnes Marchione. Her delicious swoops and soaring arpeggios were masterfully apposite to the feelings of Colin Jacobsen’s arrangement.
Not least of the delights of Jacobsen’s work here was a musical pun. At one point, an orchestral dance began, propelled by the focused and authoritative voice of Andrew Bove’s tuba. Suddenly it was evident that a whole series of measures were in different time signatures! It swung like mad, and at least some folks in the audience caught what was happening. The times were really changing!