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Leap Year Surprises

New York
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
02/29/2024 -  
Maurice Ravel: Le Tombeau de Couperin
Du Yun: Ears of the Book
Kurt Weill: First Symphony (“Berliner Symphony”) – Alabama Song (arr. Christina Courtin)
Bob Dylan: When the Ship Comes In (arr. Christina Courtin)
Chico Buarque: Geni e o Zepelim (arr. Colin Jacobsen)

Christina Courtin, Magos Herrera, Alex Sopp (Vocalists), Wu Man (pipa)
The Knights, Colin Jacobsen (Violin, Artistic Director), Eric Jacobsen (Co-Artistic Director, Conductor)

W. Man (© David Bazemore)

Thick strings clatter like splattering rain;/Fine strings murmur like whispered words./Clattering and murmuring, meshing/Interweaving sounds./Like pearls, big and small falling on a platter of jade.
Bai Juyi (816 BCE), Song of the Pipa

That always-copasetic group of musicians, The Knights, is known for its adventurous programming. Last night, perhaps in honor of a rare Leap Year, in, their adventures were picaresque, with music reversing time and space.

Beginning with a Maurice Ravel’s 20th Century paean for an 18th Century composer. Continuing with an iconic ancient Chinese instrument melding with a 21st Century orchestra. Advancing with the work of a composer best known for his Broadway melodies–Speak Low could be the most beautiful song ever written–with an example of Weimar Republic syncretism. And ending with a Brazilian revolutionary song and a musical revolutionary, Bob Dylan.

How did this all combine? In a musical metaphor, Kurt Weill’s First Symphony, written when he was 21, was emblematic. One might not like everything in this work. Yet, like the eclectic programming, one had to admire his smorgasbord of German Expressionism, cute melodies, atonality, a pair of fugues (one with everybody playing in the same key), and some lackadaisical langour.

One has to praise Conductor Eric Jacobsen for giving us this work. The Symphony was not Schoenbergian like his other German music. And it wasn’t Broadway. It was a potpourri from which one could select what was personally appealing. The first measures–which could have introduced Murnau’s Nosferatu–were repeated at the end. The rest, in a work as long as a whole Haydn symphony, was a series of thoughts.

C. Jacobsen/E. Jacobsen (© The Knights)

The other one-movement work, by the exuberant composer Du Yun, was a kind of concerto for the Chinese pipa, a combination of banjo and multi‑stringed Elizabethan lute, and titled Ears of the Book.

One could hear this two ways. First the program described the music as “ten Polaroid photographs.” Before the performance, I tried to memorize the titles of “Mist, Teardrops, A Wild Beast, Marigold” etc etc. But couldn’t do it.

Instead, listened–less with respect or admiration, more with joy–to an artist who has brought the pipa to the world, Wu Man. Her sounds, jangly or sweet, melodic or swirling, were, as to be expected, a world unto themselves.

Except that Wu Man was connected with singular color, by the Knights orchestra. Composer Du Yun started with a pianissimo jolt. As Wu Man played solo, behind her was a lulling note by (what I think was) clarinet. After this the orchestra and pipa came together for those “Polaroid” shots. In fact, one whole section was devoted to solo pipa and two raging percussionists. I don’t know what the picture was, but the effect was ear‑blinding.

This was not Wu Man’s only appearance. In a Brazilian surrealistic revolutionary song, Geni e o Zepelim, the great Brazilian singer Magos Herrera, Wu Man and The Knights sung a work which wound up with a fiery fervor.

Violinist/vocalist Christina Courtin gave, what seemed like an atmospheric arrangement of Bob Dylan’s When the Ship Comes In. (I don’t know the original.)

I well know Ms Courtin’s next work, the Weill/Brecht Alabama Song. It was beautifully sung as a duet, with Alex Sopp. And that was the problem. It is not a “beautiful” song. It is tough, mean, hopeless, astringent and, well nasty.

Never mind. The Knights offered a plethora of choices. Most were memorably choice indeed.

Harry Rolnick



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