The innovative and creative chamber orchestra called The Knights offered the final concert of Classical Newport’s 54th acclaimed summer festival, as the 15 players produced an enormously rich and lush sound Sunday in the resonant acoustic of The Breakers grand hall overlooking the waters of Rhode Island Sound along Newport’s high cliff. The orchestra is unique in so many ways, not the least of which is a collaboration of two artistic directors and brothers, violinist Colin Jacobsen and conductor and cellist Eric Jacobsen. They clearly share passion, hugging each other quite often in a sight beautiful to behold. The night also featured many of the orchestra’s players in solo concerto roles, beginning with Alex Sopp performing Antonio Vivaldi’s Flute Concerto in G Minor, Op. 10, No. 2 RV 439 “La Notte” (“Night”). While there was no continuo group, the orchestra delivered a clean, crisp sound and the soloist rendered with both exuberance and nuance in a modern interpretation. The slower movements emphasized the stark dissonances, in a gentle and quiet way; overall, the concerto gave great pleasure for its brightness and sparkle.
British born composer Anna Clyne, now resident in New Paltz, New York, dubbed “fearless” by NPR and a “composer of uncommon gifts and unusual methods” by the New York Times, is considered a collaborative composer. She partners with creators in other art forms and writes in both acoustic and electro-acoustic mediums. Her Prince of Clouds featured violinists Alex Gonzalez and Colin Jacobsen in concerto roles. Clyne wrote: “I was contemplating the presence of musical lineage ― a family tree of sorts that passes from generation to generation. This transfer of knowledge and inspiration between generations is a beautiful gift.” A soft counterpoint of dissonant suspensions resolving between the two violins (sans vibrato) opened the work and as other orchestral textures join them the sound warmed up and became intense and soaring. Some of the lines were reminiscent of the spacious writing of Vaughan Williams, but Clyne also wrote some sharp dissonant chords accompanied by the slapping of bows on the strings in more aggressive sections.
Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances closed out the first half, in an arrangement by Alex Fortes. Bartók originally wrote and recorded this set for piano, but also authorized and recorded a version for violin and piano and made his own arrangement for small ensemble. The dances hail from the region around Transylvania, once a part of Hungary, later coming under the jurisdiction of Romania, not far from where Bartók was born. He likely heard these melodies from his childhood. They are part of the repertoire of wandering violinists and have influences from Jewish and Roma sources. The movement titles do not translate well into English but form a continuous set of dances that start more deliberate, then become reflective, and finally brisk: Joc cu bâta (dance with sticks), Brâul (a circle dance, perhaps related to the Branle), Pê-loc (a rather exotic Mid-East modal melody perhaps in imitation of a penny whistle, over a hurdy-gurdy like drone), Buciumeana (perhaps from a village of that name, a plaintive modal melody), Poargǎ româneascǎ (Romanian polka), Mǎruntel (fast dance).
A riveting and electric account of Copland’s iconic Appalachian Spring followed intermission. In the original 13-instrument chamber version for Martha Graham and her ballet troupe it achieves perfect clarity and absolute sonic perfection. Jacobsen’s style on the podium was energetic and dynamic in the livelier sections, while expressive and fluid in the quieter moments, allowing the players to shape their own solo lines, particularly in the flute, clarinet, and bassoon. Evocative of an Appalachian sunrise and concluding with its sunset, it successfully conveyed the magic of that scene, and the events in between ― a rousing barn dance, and the famous Shaker hymn of beauty “Simple Gifts” ― played first in serene simplicity by the clarinet (Agnes Marchione) and then in a triumphal conclusion – a day in the life, so to speak, of an American tale. Such emotion was aroused in the audience that the orchestra received a standing ovation for this work and would receive a second after the final set.
In the closer, Colin Jacobsen A Shadow Under Every Light, a suite of traditional folks songs from Slovakia and Moravia collected by Leoš Janáček, Colin Jacobsen served as violin soloist, he opened with the slow rhapsodic soliloquy followed by the fast dance typical of the Roma peoples who wandered across Eastern Europe, his intonation slightly detuned to the more authentic regional sounds he was evoking. This led into a sample from one of Janáček’s actual field recordings of the songs which flowed into the orchestral settings of six of the folk songs. Filled with poignancy, sadness, lyric empathy, these melodies soared with freedom, and were followed upon by dances of tremendous power, energy, and uplifting joy and freedom. The orchestra delivered a dynamism and passion that captured the soul of the music and the hearts of the listeners.
This fitting cap to a festival expressed a forward vision for music that encompassed the human story―its trials and triumphs through great music of the past and new music of the future, much of it with a distinctively American expressive voice. We witnessed tremendous breadth and variety of performers, ensembles, genres, and literature from Broadway, opera, Lieder, solo and chamber music spread across nearly 30 events over the course of three weeks. With a 38% new subscriber ratio, Executive Director Gillian Friedman-Fox is poised to move her team forward with plans for educational outreach and a full chamber music season ahead for the fall and winter months. Stay tuned.
Stephen Martorella is Minister of Music at The First Baptist Church in America, Providence, Rhode Island, and teaches at Rhode Island College.