Lenox — In their generous, virtuosic program in Ozawa Hall on July 30, Colin and Eric Jacobsen led their orchestral collective, The Knights, through an entertaining and frequently moving evening of Spanish music, in the course of which Don Quixote made two delightful appearances. Their ensemble included both contemporary and Baroque instruments that yielded distinctive and surprising timbres as well as extraordinary individual performances.
Beginning with an evocation of nightlife in Madrid, Luigi Boccherini’s imaginative, 18th century “La musica notturna delle strada di Madrid,” Opus 30, No. 6, replete with minuets, drum accompaniments to marching soldiers, and a quiet recitation of the Rosary, it became quickly evident that the ensemble was no pick-up outfit hired for the gig. Concertmaster Colin Jacobsen led the string ensemble with a vivid sense of texture and rhythm, summoning glorious solos, duets, and trios from violins, violas, and cellos, and from his own instrument, an exquisite palette of colors and melodic nuances. Cellists Jane Coris-O’Hara’s and Caitlin Sullivan’s solo and duo voices evoked deep emotions of love and prayer in respite from the bustle of the streets.
Ravel’s “Don Quichotte a Dulcinee” suite, arranged by Michael P. Atkinson, provided an earthy platform for the eloquent bass-baritone, Kyle Ketelson, on its tender Romantic Song; the subsequent Epic Song, calling St. Michael to “bless my blade and its equal in purity. . . my lady,” over a rich texture of woodwinds; and the boisterous, Flamenco-inflected Drinking Song, with its verse-and-chorus alternations of loathing of the knight’s competitor and of beseeching his lover to stay with him (“Down with the bastard, illustrious lady . . . to be always (with) this pale lover who dilutes his drunkenness with water”) with the abandon of inebriation (“I drink to joy! Joy is the only goal to which I go straight . . .when I’ve drunk! Ah, ah, joy! La, la, I drink to joy!) Ketelson’s passionate delivery of the knight’s over-the-top expostulations —replete with glorious, sustained “Ah’s” arching over the 6/8 rhythms of the chorus — brought the audience to besotted ovation.
There were foot-tapping orchestral delights in the Ravel: harpist Megan Conley’s slapping her strings to the Flamenco “offbeats,” percussionists Michael Caterisano and Sean Ritenauer’s inspired banging their battery of beat machines, from hand-claps that infected the whole ensemble to stylish hits of the cajon, the percussion box that one feels as much as hears, its impulses delivered by the only instrument in the orchestral ensemble that the performer sits on; and jazzy syncopations in Ravel’s score and Atkinson’s apt arrangement.
Another, more strikingly original orchestral setting, composed by The Knights themselves, called “Love Sonnet to Pablo Neruda,” delivered one of his marvelously unabashed, metaphorical poems. It was recited with charm and wit by an instrumental quartet composed of Colin Jacobsen, violin and leader, Jane Coris-O’Hara, cello, along with the superb flutist Alex Sopp and contrabassist Shawn Conley, all positioned to the left front of the orchestra. They read the words elegantly and gave a rhapsodic account of their musical commentary. Conley, a virtuoso on his unwieldy instrument, accomplished an amazing technical feat with an unassuming manner, playing difficult high harmonics on his instrument even as he quietly read a sensuous final verse.
Although the words to the poem were shown on a screen above the stage, they were unfortunately not printed in the program, perhaps because of the prudishness of a Tanglewood program editor. Not for nothing, your reviewer submits, however, is this newspaper called The Berkshire Edge. Here are the lyrics to Morning (Love Sonnet), the Neruda masterpiece so lovingly and shamelessly interpreted by The Knights:
“Naked you are simple as one of your hands;
Smooth, earthy, small, transparent, round.
You’ve moon-lines, apple pathways
Naked you are slender as a naked grain of wheat.
Naked you are blue as a night in Cuba;
You’ve vines and stars in your hair.
Naked you are spacious and yellow
As summer in a golden church.
Naked you are tiny as one of your nails;
Curved, subtle, rosy, till the day is born
And you withdraw to the underground world.
As if down a long tunnel of clothing and of chores;
Your clear light dims, gets dressed, drops its leaves,
And becomes a naked hand again.”
Colin Jacobson’s transparent and refined tribute to the late Flamenco guitarist, an arrangement of the master’s Zyrab, provided the backdrop for a long, stunning, pizzicato contrabass solo. Shawn Conley wove melodic and rhythmic threads from the Flamenco, classical and jazz traditions into a radiant veil of sound. At times, he appeared to make the impossible possible, with sheets of rapid-fire notes, including double-stops, and gigantic jumps in register. All was in the service of expression, even reverence for, de Lucia’s own sublime musicality.
Paco de Lucia’s own tribute to Zyrab (789-857), the renowned master of the Oud and who traveled from Baghdad to Persia to North Africa, and ultimately to the service of Umayyad Prince Abd ar-Rahman II in Cordoba, spending 30 years in Spain and influencing profoundly the music of the entire region may be experienced below. Consider this history, please, when you hear the Middle Eastern inflections in the imaginative improvising.
Franceso Gemiani’s “La Folla,” (madness or folly), Concerto Grosso No. 12 in D minor, Opus 5, No. 12, and the familiar “Ritual Fire Dance” by Manuel de Falla, finished out the first half of the concert with style and panache.
In the first, Colin Jacobsen masterfully unspooled a panoply of variations that signified a crazy crew of characters: lovers, royals, peasants, and soldiers, backed by vibrato-less strings, a formal trope of early music. The contrast was vivid and impressive. Only occasionally did Jacobsen allow himself a touch of vibrato. One cannot but admire this man’s knowledge, depth and breadth across performance traditions, and boundless commitment to honest expression.
Equally, the de Falla crossed stylistic boundaries with a brilliant, early music instrumental touch, which yielded unexpected, almost fantastical timbres. Baroque instruments, especially Geoff Demer’s fluent, colorful oboe, combined with tambourine and percussive strings to create layers of texture redolent of ancient Spain and Africa.
During the intermission, one could not but wonder where this group’s inspirational approach to music comes from. Without question, the Jacobsen brothers catalyze the process, but there was such evident investment from all the players, such joy in one another’s achievements, and such apparent pride in the ensemble, with hugs to neighbors after the performance, that there had to be something unique and special in the process.
Some clues are found in these two brief videos, which address The Knight’s collective choice of repertory and collaborative approach to rehearsal. In the absurdly competitive world of classical music, with so many fine musicians scrambling for ever fewer performance opportunities, this community spirit is rare, admirable, and worthy of emulation.
Manuel de Falla’s “Master Peter’s Puppet Show” (performed to mark the 400th anniversary of the publication of Cervantes’ ‘”Don Quixote,” part II) introduced both a painter/set designer and 2 impressive additional singers. It was evident at the start of the second half of the concert that something new and different was forthcoming. Facing the conductor’s stand was a table, a chair, an overhead projector, and a flat-screen computer monitor.
The ensemble walked on, along with the three vocalists, soprano Awet Andemicael, who played The Boy, the truth-telling witness to the dramatic sequence; tenor Nicholas Phan as Master Peter; bass-baritone Kyle Ketelson as Don Quixote; and Kevork Mourad, who in real time drew figures, landscapes, and castles to project onto the screen above. It was a most intriguing set-up, and did it ever deliver!
On the screen, strikingly apt and allusive images in the form of semi-animated, humorous caricatures took form, evoking the abandonment of women to men’s entertainments in a chess game in The Court of Charlemagne, prior to the magnificent Emperor’s arrival; the Moor’s forbidden kissing of his daughter; his violent capture, and the trial of a knight, Don Gayferos, her beloved husband, whom Charlemagne blames for the offense, with Don Quixote as the judge. The story is told to wondrous effect by the soprano, Awet Andemicael, whose Spanish glows with burrs and melismas, and whose dynamics, supported by a light orchestral texture featuring the harpsichord, captured the excitement from a child’s perspective. Her facial expressions were stunningly apposite.
Mourad’s drawing, the instrumental performance and singing were delightful and moving. In one romantic interlude, the artist drew Princess Melisendra with a pen, creating instant shadows by blurring the ink with his fingers. After its insertion into the animated cartoon on the screen above, the Moor embraced her. But she quickly pushed him off balance and dropped him to the ground. Wild music followed. Suddenly sawing strings accompanied the strokes of the whip as he was punished harshly. But after Don Gayferos rescued the princess, Don Quixote, in florid hallucination, imagined that to save the Don and Melisendra he must attack both the puppeteer and his puppets. He draws his sword, to the dismay of Master Peter and the crowd. But then, as always, the Knight Errant sings an Aria to his Dulcinea and, as in the Ravel we so enjoyed, offers a toast.
Here’s a marvelous version of El Retablo de Maese Pedro by the Symphonic Orchestra of Montreal, conducted by Charles Dutoit:
Nicholas Phan was a powerhouse puppeteer, bringing heft, resonance, and intelligence to a challenging role. His voice smoothly traversed the range above and beneath his tessitura, and his intonation was infallible wherever he needed to be.
To Kyle Ketelson, once again as Don Quixote, go signal honors for virtuosity in singing and acting the role. Sublimely funny and tragic in turns, he was a believable madman, giving everyone present a sense of the absurdity of the Knight’s delusions and, at the same time, his tragic inability to perceive the cruel realities of the world around him. His huge but modulated voice and convincing gestures, from the subtle aping of a judge’s assured authority to the prancing prepossessions of the Knight Errant, were devastatingly entertaining.
All the Knights gave their all, and the crowd bought every story, and cheered.