By Greg Cahill
“In a certain sense, when we started out we didn’t necessarily have a long-term goal,” says Colin Jacobsen, violinist and co-founder of the Knights chamber orchestra when asked about the vision behind the ensemble’s inception in 2004.
“It was more like a sense of experimentation and looking at what we could do to really claim the music that we were playing for ourselves.
“So one goal became discovering how specific you can be with an orchestra. Can you get to a place where everyone is responding off of each other with an immediacy that feels like a string quartet? That’s a difficult thing to do with 30 or 40 people. But that remains our goal, we hope to achieve it through continual refreshment of the creative process, the repertoire, and how we present it to audiences.”
Newly signed to Warner Classics, the Knights have released their latest CD, …the ground beneath our feet, which showcases the many ways that composers as diverse as Haydn and Steve Reich have employed the concerto grosso form, in which musical material is passed between a small group of soloists and a full orchestra. Jacobsen characterizes the relationship between these two musical groups as a “party within a party.” The form’s combination of virtuosity and conversation appealed to the Knights—as the New York Times has observed, “camaraderie and shared enthusiasm for playing music are what drive the ensemble.”
The centerpiece of the album is Stravinsky’s Concerto in Eb, “Dumbarton Oaks,” which the Knights recorded live at Dumbarton Oaks, the Washington DC estate that gave the work its name, on the 75th anniversary of its premiere.
The title track was composed collectively by members of the Knights, each of whom wrote a section based on an old Baroque bass line. The sections were improvised on, retooled, and stitched together, like “an American quilt,” Jacobsen says. “The focal point was the Ciaccona by the Italian Baroque composer Tarquinino Merula—specifically the four-bar ground bass line Merula repeats throughout,” explains Knights bassist Zach Cohen.
“You will hear sections influenced by salsa, Irish reels, gypsy, raga, and free jam, all tied together by Merula’s bass line in its different incarnations.”
It’s the sort of project that defines the Knights. Says Jacobsen, “We’re always looking for meaningful collaborations, whether that’s with a venue in New York or with an artist, and to continue to deepen the involvement of those within the group, because there are so many interesting voices in the Knights.”