by Jill Kimball
For centuries, the concerto grosso form has served to play up the strengths of a chamber group by highlighting its best virtuosi and calling for a conversation between soloists and orchestra. The Knights, a Brooklyn-based collaborative ensemble, believe that composition form still has room to grow.
They’ve dedicated their latest album, the ground beneath our feet, to the concerto grosso. The album features both classic and new examples of the form, from Bach to Stravinsky to some of the group’s very own composers. The result is a collection of music that’s grounded in a common cause but weightless in execution.
Steve Reich’s Duet for Two Violins and Strings is a lovely way to start off any album. Accessible and dreamy, it’s pleasing to the ear of everyone from classical aficionados to newcomers. Though it’s puzzling to me that an album called the ground beneath our feet would begin with something so gravity-defying, this interpretation soared effortlessly and beautifully enough to make me forget my confusion.
“Effortless” is also the primary word I’d use to describe the performance of Bach’s Concerto for Violin & Oboe. Sometimes it’s difficult to gauge the quality of musicianship in a new-music ensemble whose oeuvre consists mostly of world premieres. But when the Knights pull off a live recording whose quality rivals classic recordings with Hilary Hahn and Yehudi Menuhin, they really prove their mettle. The strings sound a bit less dark, rich and precise than in a classic recording, but that may have more to do with the concert’s setting than with the musicians themselves.
Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” concerto is like a mashup of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and The Rite of Spring, a really fascinating listen. Stravinsky once said of the piece, “Whether or not the first theme of my first movement is a conscious borrowing from the…Brandenburg set, I do not know. What I can say is that Bach most certainly would have been delighted to loan it to me; to borrow in this way was exactly the sort of thing he liked to do.” It’s true: to borrow an idea from a predecessor and turn it into something that’s unmistakably yours is so like both Bach and Stravinsky. The Knights’ rendition is a little slower than usual–all the better to revel in the complex but very listenable themes interwoven throughout the piece.
If you love recordings from the Silk Road Ensemble, headed by the world-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma, you’ll probably love the next piece: a joint effort between two composers who met while they played in Silk Road together. One of them, Siamak Aghaei, spent a lot of time in his native Iran gathering field recordings of folk musicians, and played them back to an excited Colin Jacobsen. Over the years, those field recordings have inspired three co-compositions; this latest effort features violin and santur, a kind of hammered dulcimer dating back to ancient Babylonia.
The title track is a very different sort of concerto, one whose composition was a group effort that drew on The Knights’ individual strengths and musical interests. The whole thing is tied together with a bass line taken from Tarquino Merula’s Ciaccona, and with that common thread is able to morph organically from Baroque symphonic music to creatively syncopated Irish folk music, from melodies influenced by Romani and Indian culture to improvisational drumming and jazzy, Spanish-inspired dance music, complete with claves. It all works for me until the very end, when there’s a silence before Christina Courtin sings “Fade Away,” her own original song. The bass line connection is seemingly lost, and the cartoonish fanfare backing Courtin was odd paired with her lyrics (“I’m not saying I’m afraid of dying, baby / I count my blessings with you every day / But you know I can’t go on this way”). Despite the fact that “Fade Away” would be more at home on a Sufjan Stevens album, I liked its sound.
I reached the end of the CD puzzling, once again, over the title of the disc. What, in this instance, is “the ground beneath our feet?” Common thought is that Bach laid the ground on which all musicians stand today. But the fact is, many contemporary composers choose to leave the ground and explore new frontiers in space.
Take a look at the album art and you’ll see a portrait of Stravinsky cut open and peeled back to reveal a dark, starry abyss. I’ll take this as a sign that The Knights acknowledge the great forces of the past but will sometimes refuse the pull of their gravity.
If the ground beneath our feet has indeed disappeared in parts of this album, that’s okay: outer space sure sounds pretty good to me.