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Knights Celebrate Hungarian and Roma Cultures

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The Brooklyn-based instrumental collective, the Knights, played Ozawa Hall Thursday night in its sixth successive season at Tanglewood. I have heard and written about two previous Tanglewood concerts (2016 and 2018), and therefore expected consistently focused and energized programming, replete with verve and wit, and alert to the flexible conducting of Eric Jacobsen. Last night, in music that at times showed elements of humor, many members of the ensemble played with smiles.

Two Hungarian contemporaries, György Ligeti (1923-2006) and György Kurtág (b. 1926), both known for challenging modernistic music, but both of whom at certain points in their lives drew upon Hungarian folk melodies, working them into their compositions, were partnered with two other inveterate collectors of folk songs: Zoltan Kodály, and Brahms, whose work with two Hungarian violinists (Ede Reményi and Joseph Joachim) developed his feeling for the lilt and improvisatory quality of what was then called Zigeuner or “gypsy” music, now referred to as Romani for some of his best-selling music.

Brahms’s Violin Concerto, with soloist Gil Shaham, a frequent collaborator with The Knights, and Kodály’s Dances of Galánta were the major works. But unlike most concerts, in which formal silence surrounds such pieces, here each of the two larger works—one on the first half, the other on the second—linked without break to a modern piece in the folk style.

The fourth movement of Ligeti’s Concert Românesc tuned the ear to the rhythmic characteristic and some of the crunchy sororities of Roma music, which played at least some role in the Brahms concerto that followed, especially in its finale. Gil Shaham’s expressive range, from the sweet lyricism of the slow movement to the fiery drama of the finale, is well known, and he was in prime form. Eric Jacobsen captured the frequent and flexible changes of tempo and dynamics that such ultra-romantic music demands and rarely gets.

The second half of the program was more fully “Hungarian,” with eight short pieces, plus the medium-length Kodály dances. Here, too, a sort of concert prelude began with a solo violin at the rear of Ozawa Hall performing the first of several Kurtág chamber works drawn from his collection Signs, Games, and Messages; the first piece performed was “Perpetuum mobile.” Just as the Ligeti work linked directly to the Brahms concerto in the first half, the Kurtág piece was followed without pause for applause by the Dances of Galánta, so subtly that it was not necessarily obvious that the composer and work had changed—except that the orchestra started playing and the solo violinist quietly resumed her seat at the rear of the first violins, The colors of the dances, the shades of dynamics, and the frequent changes of tempo for changing kaleidoscopic passages made for a festive atmosphere.

Eric Jacobsen leads the Knights and Gil Shaham (Hilary Scott photo)

The remainder of the program playfully alternated extremely short chamber works (either string trios or solo violin pieces) by Kurtág, the longest of which was about a minute and half. The first pair were entitled “Hommage à Bach” and “Im Volkston.” They were followed by two Brahms Hungarian Dances, No 1 in G Minor and No. 7 in F Major, both arranged by conductor Eric Jacobsen. These, of course, are much loved works, and the performances went off with a “swing” that was a sheer delight, compounded when Shaham slipped back onto the stage with a secret smile, to play a solo passage in the center of the first dance, and then to take a seat in the rear of the first violins to be a part of the orchestra. Two more alternations of Kurtág and Brahms—the one very short and hushed, with solo instruments (“Flowers we are…to Mijako” and “Signs”)—and the other rolling in romantic expression, in the Jacobsen arrangements (Hungarian Dances No. 4 in F-sharp Minor, and the most famous of all, No. 5 in G Minor).

The enthusiastic audience applauded for bow after bow, and finally the entire orchestra lined up across the front of the stage (like actors in a piece of musical theater) so that each player could be in the front line while taking the final bow.

Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

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