The innovative chamber orchestra, the Knights, will bring Leonard Bernstein’s Candide in fully staged performances to Seiji Ozawa Hall for two performance, tonight and Thursday. Tickets HERE.
Bernstein based his delightful 1956 comic operetta on Voltaire’s satirical novel, which follows the title character’s traumatic adventures in imperial Europe and semi-civilized South America. All the while, Dr. Pangloss’s mock-philosophical refrain “All’s for the best in this best of all possible worlds” rings hollow as Candide’s vain sweetheart Cunegonde and her Old Lady retainer undergo humiliating and laughable trials. Lillian Hellman wrote the original play; the song lyrics were mostly by poet Richard Wilbur and Stephen Sondheim even had a hand in it. We can all certainly remember such numbers as “Glitter and Be Gay,” “What a Day for an auto–da–fé,” and who can resist “Make Our Garden Grow?”
Eric Jacobsen conducts a large case of vocalists, dancers, and actors, including tenor Miles Mykkanen in the title role, baritone Evan Jones as Voltaire/Dr. Pangloss/Cacambo, and soprano Sharleen Joynt as Cunegonde. Alison Moritz directs the fully staged production.
Jacobsen begins an interview with a formation story for the New York-based collective.
Eric Jacobsen: The Knights formed in a living room setting, by just playing chamber music over the course of ten years and starting to figure out how people understood each other and found that the members of the group have a like style of making music together, like a symbiotic relationship. We started playing more chamber music, more larger pieces together, and we still operate under the principle that we don’t use a conductor when we feel like we can get to the heart of the music as fast as if we had one. And about 60 or 70% of time, I’m conducting, but it’s more about how we can get to the bottom of the musical concept and question as fast as we can. Of course, when we rehearse without a conductor, there’s a certain amount of time that goes into just like playing things together, which is, of course, slightly harder when you don’t have one person who doesn’t have an instrument. Because when you have a conductor, it’s easier to just make sure that someone’s main job is staying together. We talk about a conductor as a conduit for mutual understanding, someone who could help bring ideas and concepts together. Many string symphonies and early baroque piece or early classical pieces were conceived without the expectation of conductors, and we feel like we can get to the heart of them through the chamber music breath feel that happens with that kind of music, because so many people in the Knights are chamber musicians by trade.
For something like Candide, of course, having a full cast and dancers and full staging, and the full orchestra, that’s a total dream for this conductor. It’s so much fun to be a part of this process, and Alison Moritz, the director, and John Heginbotham, the choreographer, and I just have had such a joy coming together and working this through.
BMInt: When you are presenting chamber music as the Knights, do you, assist in the development of interpretation in the rehearsal process, or is it completely democratic with all the fun and time wasting that that implies?
The process of rehearsal, depending on how you look at it, is an incredibly messy one, and so beautiful. Sometimes you get to the heart of something, everyone’s exactly on the same page, and boom, you’re on it. Sometimes there are so many questions that have to be asked and things that have to be tried to have a real answer, and when we play chamber music, if I’m playing cello, I’m part of that process. If I’m not playing cello, and it’s chamber music, whoever is playing chamber music is playing as an ensemble. I don’t know how to describe it… it’s kind of a beautiful thing when you have a string quartet or octet rehearse. How you talk and when you talk and when you suggest something and how strongly you feel about something… it’s that process of self-selection. And the same goes for the rehearsal when I’m conducting. It’s a very open process, and we really try to make sure everyone has the opportunity and is encouraged to participate. And to tell you the truth, it’s even happening with this big opera, where we have time to rehearse as an orchestra, and people in the orchestra are making suggestions that are going to the singers, and singers are going to the orchestra. It’s a very communal, and yeah, it’s a messy, beautiful one, and sometimes it’s the thing that leads to the best of all possible musical outcomes, as Pangloss might say.
For a group larger than a standing quartet to take substantial with rubato or a sudden hairpin, isn’t it a little safer if there’s somebody in charge, even a clarinetist waving his virtual baton.
Is it safer? Or actually is there much more possibility for there to be risk taking? With a conductor, you do have more immediacy of changing on a dime. And yet at the same time, when you have a rehearsal process where everyone’s involved and has had such input, you have such incredible buy-in, and therefore you have people who are incredibly aware and involved that it’s hard not to be swept away in a moment. And of course, when you’re talking about taking rubato or something that’s led by someone, whether it’s a bassline or a concertmaster or, as you said, a clarinet as baton, something like that.
You really do seem to cover the field as an ensemble. Your only fear seems to be of routine. You’re always presenting something different. How often have you done a staged theater piece?
Thank you for noticing that we often are trying to push on what we do, because you’re always trying to figure out what you can do better, and you’re always trying to figure out how you could fit into the musical landscape and make something beautiful to give to humans. Candide is our first fully staged opera. We did do the Stephen Stuckey opera back at Carnegie, and in Ojai Festival about five years ago. It was a little less theatrical than this, but it was a great production with a great director, Mary Birnbaum. And we’ve done other types of theatrical pieces. Actually, we’re working right now on a piece that will be at the Park Avenue Amory in December. It premiered this summer at the Tate Modern in London. It was at the Ruhr Festival in Germany with the great director and artist, William Kentridge. And that’s a big theatrical piece, based sort of on the idea of the African involvement in World War I. It’s called the Head and the Load. And the reference is to the fact that African soldiers, one million of them, actually, lost their lives in World War I. And how they were, they weren’t actually allowed to carry guns. They were more or less Sherpas. They were carrying things, the head and the load, and they became sort of part of the untold story of World War I.
Will a staged production become an annual event for the Knights?
Good question. We are going to do this same production at Ravinia in 2019 in the summer. And I think that we always, as you noticed, want to be looking into what we can be doing and presenting in new and different ways. I know that multimedia, and the idea of incorporating different types of artistic genres into orchestral music is something we always want to do. So, we’re just going to keep on asking the question, you know, we do a lot of with dancers. We do a lot with singers. We do a lot with directors, choreographers. How do we continue to push that envelope and figure out what’s the next best step?
How about a silent movie?
Love it. Give me some Charlie Chaplin any day.
No, serious stuff, not the comedies. There are some really deep silent films out there with original scores that were written for them when they came out, with full orchestras.
What comes to mind? I’ll check it out?
Oh, the greatest movie ever made is called Sunrise. It’s in 1927, and it’s by Murnau, and it has an original score by Hugo Riesenfeld, which was done by the Vitaphone Orchestra, and it was at the beginning of the sound era, but before they synchronized the sound. If you see the right version of it, you will hear it as it was heard by the theatergoers in 1927, and it’s pretty radical, mixing up Chopin, Gounod, Riesnefeld and some popular tunes in a sometimes Ivesian pudding.
I’ll check it out.
OK, do. But let’s go back to the work at hand. You’re doing Candide two nights in Tanglewood, And have you done it elsewhere, or will you do it elsewhere?
We just came back from doing it at Skaneateles as a concert version, and we’re doing excerpts of it this season at the Tillis Center, and as I said, we’ll do it at the Ravinia next summer. So it’s an ongoing process. And actually, the original thing, about three years ago when I got together with the director and choreographer, we did this, a very similar production at the Orlando Philharmonic, where I’m the music director, and we did it sort of with the idea that we were going to see if Tanglewood and Ravinia would be interested in putting on this product. It was very lucky that it ended up happening.
The libretto is famously worked over by many different people. Is there any final version? Is there a preferred version? Do we have more of Hellman or Sondheim? What’s going on with what we’re going to be seeing and hearing?
So much of it is kind of thrown around in different ways. And of course, the first version, of Candide was much lighter and more humor filled but, Bernstein’s last iteration of it became quite serious, and I think that’s kind of where he thought it might be. And I think the viewing of this is kind of the zany ability to capture a moment of both humor and truth at a time where, God, it just seems like a new piece, because it’s incredibly immediate; it hasn’t lost anything because it’s 60 years old. This piece is as fresh as it was in 1956.
You can’t quite say the same thing for West Side Story. It seems to be stuck in an era, that way Candide is timeless.
You are absolutely right. Candide seems to be one of these pieces where, because it’s more of a soul search. It’s more like, what are we doing? And how are going to make sense of this? And how do we justify what we do? What are the means that we are willing to use to get to something that we want? And it’s, you know, tons of political references throughout this, very sexy and dirty and fun and the idea of humor and religion and politics all bundled all together. And it’s so timely.
Are you adding any topical references?
We’re not really going off book, except for some small, say, updates or, what is it called, slight rewording for the sake of clarity. But there are a couple of funny added things, but there’s nothing that is referential to what’s going on, say, in the last ten years.
So you’re not trying to equate the auto–da–fé with anything going on now. You’ll let us make those conclusions ourselves.
The beauty of it is that you don’t need to draw any other conclusion, except what’s there already.
And another amazing thing about this show is how the poignance catches us by surprise.
Yeah, that’s true.
The cast are all singer-dancers, but you also have a choreographer and two solo dancers.
The dance numbers involve the entire cast. And the choreographer, John Heginbotham has been at Jacob’s Pillow, he has presented at Tanglewood, and he was a Mark Morris dancer. His own company, Dance Heginbotham, is just doing great. I believe they got Guggenheim last year; he’s doing big stuff.
How much will be amplified in the Ozawa Hall?
It’s such an acoustic space, I’m not sure there’s anything that’s necessary.
A narrator typically gets miked.
Oh, yeah, for sure. The text, for sure, because there’s lots of underscoring.
The words of Pangloss and Voltaire need to carry.
We’ve been up here rehearsing for the last two days with sound and all the texts and dialogue is amplified.
Is it also going to be titled?
No, we’re not doing it, because, actually, it really very clear.
It’s an amplitude issue. Ozawa has a wonderfully burnishing acoustic, yet words can get across if they’re loud enough.
And how big an ensemble are you going to have?
It’s 25. It’s the Scottish National Opera version.
You rarely hear that many, even on Broadway, these days.
Oh, yeah, much smaller.
So what are you going to do with the Old Woman’s sliced butt cheek?
Oh, it’s there. [LAUGHTER] Maggie is an incredible singer and incredible actress.
* * *
Oh, gosh, yes. For Thanksgiving. My wife’s family, actually, you might know my wife. She’s a singer/songwriter. Aoife O’Donovan, and her father, Brian O’Donovan is a WGBH guy, and always does the Christmas Celtic Sojourn.
That’s a wonderful radio voice…You’re not bringing the company to Boston?
There’s not a plan for the Knights to be in Boston, but I do think there is a tour in the winter of 2020 that might be heading up that way. I will —
Well, we don’t need to talk about that yet. [LAUGHTER]
And did you choose Candide just because this is Bernstein’s centennial?
Who knew that this particular piece would be so timely? And Bernstein must be one of the greatest American heroes, and certainly one of the greatest American musical heroes, To get to continue to play one of his works speaks in a very, very real way to audiences today is a lucky thing, and it’s one of those things that we should all keep in mind asking ourselves, “What are we creating this for? Why are we creating it? How do we make it great? “
Candide is no stranger to Broadway and other revivals, and it’s likely to have a permanent place in musical theater, but the Knights will bring their own radical but respectful take, I’m sure.
I hope so.
Flexible in size and repertory, The Knights are dedicated to transforming the orchestral experience and eliminating barriers between audience and music. Led by an open-minded spirit of camaraderie and collaboration, we seek to engage with contemporary culture through vibrant performances that honor the classical tradition and our passion for musical discovery.
We believe in artistic excellence and exploration. We surprise audiences by constantly seeking new approaches to music-making and new exponents of the art form. We strive to play old music like it was written yesterday and inhabit new music in a way that’s familiar and natural. We are serious about having fun. We thrive on camaraderie and friendship. We cultivate a collaborative environment that honors a multiplicity of voices.
The Knights are a collective of adventurous musicians, dedicated to transforming the orchestral experience and eliminating barriers between audiences and music. Driven by an open-minded spirit of camaraderie and exploration, they inspire listeners with vibrant programs that encompass their roots in the classical tradition and passion for artistic discovery. The orchestra has toured and recorded with renowned soloists including Yo-Yo Ma, Dawn Upshaw, Béla Fleck, and Gil Shaham, and have performed at Carnegie Hall, Tanglewood, and the Vienna Musikverein.