The Knights mark Candlelight milestone with absorbing Kreutzer program

Mon Sep 12, 2022 at 5:49 pm
The Knights

The Knights performed Sunday afternoon for Candlelight Concert Society. Photo: Shervin Lainez

Candlelight Concert Society opened its 50th anniversary season Sunday afternoon at the Horowitz Center in Columbia. The chamber orchestra known as The Knights performed a program at the series’ home base, largely drawn from their recording on the theme of the Kreutzer Sonata, released last month.

First, however, came the world premiere of Afterglow, a new work by Viet Cuong commissioned by Candlelight Concert Society to honor its semicentennial. Cuong, a composer with local ties, spoke of the eight-minute piece as inspired by the lingering light of a sunset observed at the Grand Canyon. Strings opened the work on a gently rocking melody, heard first in plucked notes, refracted gradually by the rest of the ensemble of harp, woodwinds, and brass.

That melody over a repeating bass progression gave the feel of a passacaglia, with patterns of texture and rhythm varying section by section. Much of the time the music felt triple-meter, although irregular beats defied expectations. That nonuniformity happily played against the saccharine melodic and harmonic style, while many notes of the tune were repeated by other instruments, as if streaking the air with color.

For the group’s Kreutzer Project recording, Knights co-founder Colin Jacobsen arranged Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9 as a violin concerto. Even in its original form, the 40-minute sonata has symphonic dimensions, with Beethoven even inscribing it as “written in a very virtuosic style, almost like a concerto.” In fact, the famous opening of the first movement has the feel of a concerto cadenza, just at the start rather than near the end of the movement.

Jacobsen took the solo part with flair, accompanied with occasional stridency by the chamber ensemble. The greatest interest came in the woodwinds, entrusted with some of the most crucial moments from the piano part, like the floridly arpeggiated chords Beethoven included at some transition points. In particular, flutist Alex Sopp excelled in what amounted to a second solo part. The horns and trumpet, by contrast, felt underutilized.

In one of those unavoidable incidents of live performance, in the middle of the second movement, a poignant theme and variations, Jacobsen broke a violin string. While the soloist remedied the situation, conductor Eric Jacobsen ad-libbed to cover the break, even organizing an impromptu singing and playing of “Happy Birthday” to composer Viet Cuong. When Colin returned to the stage, the performers restarted with no problem at the start of the second variation.

Jacobsen the violinist went on to dispatch the running sixteenth notes of that variation with aplomb, trading themes with the ensemble’s woodwind quartet and especially with Sopp’s flute. The ensemble playing improved as the group cohered in the finale, taken at a fleet tempo and with vivacious playing from soloist and orchestra alike.

Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” sonata had an afterlife as a symbol of illicit passion in Leo Tolstoy’s novella of the same name. This story of adultery, in turn, inspired Leoš Janáček’s first string quartet, also included on this program. In Shorthand, a new work composed for The Knights, Anna Clyne drew from both Beethoven and Janáček’s music, with an ardent solo part for cellist Karen Ouzounian.

Although Ouzounian recorded the work with a string quintet, one on a part, eleven string players accompanied her in this concert. The larger ensemble occasionally overpowered the soloist, as when the violins opened up the work with ecstatic arpeggios. Clyne distilled Janáček’s folk music influences in some exotic intervals and even hints of klezmer-like inflections. Ouzounian handled the brilliant running figures with impressive virtuosity, racing up and down the fingerboard, often pursued by the other strings.

Michael P. Atkinson, one of the ensemble’s horn players, orchestrated Janáček’s String Quartet No. 1 (“Kreutzer Sonata”) for The Knights. Not surprisingly, this arrangement made greater use of the brass instruments, with some clever percussion effects worked into the score as well. Eric Jacobsen’s conducting was at its most effective in this piece, whose stops and starts required flexibility and fluency to evoke the character of folk music.

Torrid jealousies and passionate encounters seemed more vividly colored in this version, especially the big climaxes of the third movement, given greater scope and variety by the orchestration. Musical themes, like mottos, returned obsessively, now in English horn and flute, with the addition of a pulsing snare drum making the end of the final movement even more tense.

As a tie-in to Janáček’s incorporation of folk music, Colin Jacobsen also offered another arrangement of his as a lagniappe. In the suite A Shadow Under Every Light, he arranged six folk tunes that the Czech composer captured in field recordings in the first decade of the 20th century. In more concerto-like solo parts, Jacobsen referenced virtuosic folk fiddling. Near the start, one of Janáček’s recordings was heard on the auditorium sound system, a tantalizing snippet of a musical past, to be crystallized and reworked by the live ensemble.

Clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein joins the Brentano String Quartet in music of Monteverdi, Mozart, and Dvořák 4 p.m. October 9.

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