Bridging the gap between standard repertoire and new music, between musical genres, between performers and audiences: in a nutshell, that’s the mission of the Knights, the collaborative-minded collective of musicians founded by Colin and Eric Jacobsen.
The Brooklyn-based brothers bring their perspective as string virtuosos to their trailblazing projects: violinist/composer Colin and cellist/conductor Eric also co-founded the Brooklyn Rider string quartet. (Michael Nicolas took over as cellist in 2016 so that Eric could concentrate on his conducting career, including his work with the Knights.) Yo-Yo Ma has referred to the Knights as purveyors of “a chamber music experience in orchestral form.”
The Knights will launch their latest initiative this fall with Rhapsody, an ambitious project presented by Carnegie Hall and scheduled to span three years. Rhapsody will feature a diverse spectrum of commissions, guest soloists, and musical traditions beyond the silo of Western classical music.
Inspired by the centennial of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (first performed in New York City on February 12, 1924), Rhapsody embodies the commitment to innovative collaborations between performers and composers that is a signature of the Knights. Gershwin’s landmark piece is of course centered around the piano, but the Rhapsody commissions will also spotlight string players from both Western and non-Western traditions, including Jessie Montgomery, Chris Thile, Wu Man, and Kayhan Kalhor.
The brothers Jacobsen share their thoughts on how the juxtaposition of an ultra-familiar score with the voices of contemporary composers and soloists promises to illuminate both history and the present moment.
What is the guiding vision behind your Rhapsody project?
Colin Jacobsen: Rhapsody in Blue is such an incredible moment in history because Gershwin found something that connected so vitally with the community that instantly it became a hit. Encoded in Gershwin’s Rhapsody is this idea of multiple worlds coming together, which is part of what the Knights are all about. So most of the pieces that we’ve commissioned for this project are by composers who are doing that—they’re coming from multiple genres and bringing together interesting strands. Starting with the first program [October 26, presenting the New York premiere of a new work by mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile], almost every one of the Carnegie Hall shows over the next few years will feature one of these commissioned works.
Tell me more about what the project entails.
Eric Jacobsen: The Knights magnifies the kind of programming we’ve been working on all our lives with various ensembles. What the Knights have been doing with familiar repertoire, like the Schubert symphonies, is to frame it in specific ways that give the pieces context today and at the same time pay homage to the tradition. So we’ve played and recorded Schubert symphonies alongside the music of Erik Satie, Philip Glass, and Morton Feldman, and even songs by Schubert—as opposed to letting the symphonies sit next to a concerto as in conventional programming.
We’re paying tribute to Gershwin by considering some of the questions Rhapsody in Blue opens up and commissioning composers and performers to write from different perspectives. Everything is about framing and the way that we observe the work around that frame. We’re bringing instruments together, as Kurt Weill did with the banjo. Having Wu Man play pipa with a Western orchestra is a sound that also represents a moment in history—just as Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue represents a moment in history—showing how Chinese and Western instruments can come together in a beautiful, organic way.
Generally speaking, there’s a feeling of improvisation, which is something all musicians try to achieve at the highest level.
Rhapsody involves several connections to your colleagues from the Silkroad Ensemble, with which you are both associated. Are you including non-Western strings in this celebration of Rhapsody?
CJ: Yes—for example, we’ve asked Du Yun to write a new rhapsodic work for pipa and orchestra that Wu Man will premiere on our second Carnegie show this season [February 29, 2024]. For the kamancheh virtuoso Kalhan Kalhor, I am going to write a new rhapsodic oratorio featuring the poetry of Walt Whitman juxtaposed with Rumi. Jessie Montgomery has composed a solo violin rhapsody for Michi Wiancko.
What was the impetus for choosing Rhapsody in Blue as the point of reference?
CJ: That started with our partnership with pianist Aaron Diehl. We’ve performed the piece a half dozen times together and also recorded Mary Lou Williams’ Zodiac Suite with him. Aaron approached us with the idea of having composer Michael Schachter write a new Rhapsody in honor of the 100th anniversary of Gershwin’s piece. We were looking for a commissioning, educational, and performance project that we could sink our teeth into over multiple years, and this coincided with talks around our new series at Carnegie Hall. That has given us a long-term place where we know we have a home for these works.
We love working with Aaron. For his performances of Rhapsody with us, he improvises his own cadenzas. Gershwin would be completely in awe of him. Aaron’s improvisations are just as thought-out and brilliant as any improvising musician. They’re at that edge of being fully composed and improvisatory, truly in the moment and spirited and free.
What does the idea of a “rhapsody” suggest for you?
EJ: The word “rhapsody” is filled with so many possibilities. It’s a virtuosic thing. It’s a storytelling thing. It involves mixing the edges of two genres coming together. There’s an exuberance built into it. One of the definitions of the word is an ecstatic expression of the human spirit. We think of kids and their creativity, so we’re also developing educational programs around this with young people by sharing Gershwin and maybe some of the other rhapsodies as a jumping off point for their creativity to respond to.
In your view, what has made Rhapsody in Blue so enduring in so many different contexts? What gives it its magnetic pull?
EJ: Gershwin wrote other pieces that are just as wonderful, but they don’t resonate the same way. The Piano Concerto in F is spectacular and a longer form, but somehow Rhapsody connects more. I think that has a lot to do with being at the edge between the classical world, where music is written out and fully formed, conceptual in its own way, and then this other world that seems improvised. Of course, most pianists who perform Rhapsody in Blue don’t really improvise, even if they add their own flourish to the recipe. But, generally speaking, there’s a feeling of improvisation, which is something all musicians try to achieve at the highest level. And it’s also the perfect length to allow it to feel improvised.
What you say about Gershwin bringing these disparate worlds together has an interesting parallel with musical innovators today who are breaking down barriers. But if Gershwin were undertaking his Rhapsody in Blue today, do you think he would have faced criticism along the lines of cultural appropriation?
CJ: It is a complicated issue—something that working in Silkroad has exposed us to. What’s great about playing Rhapsody with Aaron is that, from his perspective—which is classical piano and jazz training—it’s like reclaiming that territory in a way. Yo-Yo Ma would always say that if you look at any tradition deeply enough, it is the mixture of different elements that have come together that make that an interesting tradition. So the question is really about whether this is being done in a good way. Is it drawing on the best elements, and is it true to that person’s life and their experience? Our project addresses that by looking for people who are coming from different perspectives into the classical world: some from classical looking outside and some from outside of the classical tradition looking in. You want to have many different routes toward expression.