Tanglewood: The Knights, on a stormy night, a fresh breeze in Ozawa Hall
LENOX -- A raging thunderstorm delayed the start of the concert, but it was a fresh breeze that blew through Tanglewood on Wednesday night when The Knights finally got to play.
Genre-bending (it used to be called crossover) is all the thing in music these days. At its worst, it's pandering, a way for classical musicians to lure the folks in. At its best, it's the kind of thing The Knights (and the ladies among them) do.
The Ozawa Hall program was a mixed bag from the past 80 years. As important as the repertoire -- which, in its more popular manifestations, was a little sappy -- was the joy in the music-making. You could see it in the players' lithe swaying to the music and hear it in the lithe sounds that emerged.
The New York collective, founded in 1999 but making its Tanglewood debut, brought along 20 members and two star soloists, trumpeter Hakan Hardenberger and soprano Dawn Upshaw. They joined in the free and easy spirit of the evening.
Hardenberger burnished virtuosity with suavity and mellow tones in transcriptions of two sets of popular pieces, leading off with Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now." The accompaniments, for strings, cushioned the solo parts without calling attention to themselves. Attractive as the playing was, the slick arrangements left a residue of longing for the originals.
With jazz pianist Frank Kimbrough, clarinetist Scott Robinson and bassist Jay Anderson joining the ensemble, Upshaw revisited her triple Grammy Award-winning recording of Maria Schneider's "Winter Morning Walks." These nine elegantly wrought songs set poems by Ted Kooser, who wrote them while he was recovering from cancer treatment and under doctor's orders to walk two miles a day in darkness (because of the radiation therapy).
The poems are very much about death, the healing power of nature and a wish, at one point, to live 30 more years with his wife. Schneider's musical idiom, on the other hand, is a mix of blues, jazz, Broadway and more. Despite Upshaw's limpid, heartfelt singing and the back-up playing, the poems seemed stronger than the music. It's hard to argue with success, but
The pieces without soloist, though also on the lighter side, seemed fresher and more original, even when the earliest of them -- Stravinsky's "Dumbarton Oaks" Concerto -- dated back to the 1930s.
Gyorgy Ligeti's slinky, bouncy "Old Hungarian Ballroom Dances" conjured up images of ladies and gentlemen bowing and dipping in a hotel like the one in "The Grand Budapest Hotel." "Ori's Fearful Symmetry," by the composer who calls himself Ljova (actually Lev Zhurbin), went around and around in a Russian mode, growing more hypnotic with every turn.
Performed without a conductor, the Stravinsky concerto grosso played its rhythmic tricks and smiled its poker-faced humor in an incisive performance.
Co-directors and brothers Eric Jacobsen (conductor and cellist) and Colin Jacobsen (concertmaster) took turns as emcees, welcoming all. A hardy but enthusiastic band of concertgoers emerged onto flooded grounds.