WILLIAMSTOWN — When the art in a museum’s galleries is of the highest quality, it’s only fitting that musical performances there be of a similar sterling standard.
After last year’s lauded Labor Day Weekend appearance, the Clark Art Institute has invited The Knights, an orchestra collective, back to perform on the Fernandez Terrace, beside the museum's reflecting pool, on Sunday, Sept. 4. The two dozen musicians of the Brooklyn-based ensemble also will perform a family-friendly concert — intended as an introduction to orchestra music to engage young audiences — in the Clark's Manton Research Center auditorium at noon on Monday, Sept. 5.
This is the orchestra’s third visit to the Clark; they performed at the museum’s renovation reopening in 2014.
“We always love finding the connections between music and the wider world,” said violinist Colin Jacobsen by phone from Mexico, where he was performing with his string quartet Brooklyn Rider. Jacobsen co-founded and co-directs The Knights with his brother, cellist and conductor Eric Jacobsen, who is also music director of Virginia Symphony and Orlando Philharmonic orchestras.
“[Last year’s] outdoor concert was just filled with families from all over the Berkshires,” he said. “It’s a wonderful atmosphere to come out and enjoy the beautiful view by the reflecting pool and some beautiful music. The setting is so spectacular, with the water and the sky, you feel the music was written for that space.”
While last year's concert focused on Norwegian music, this year’s concert complements the Clark’s landmark summer exhibit “Rodin in the United States: Confronting the Modern,” on view through Sept. 18.
“We wanted to relate it to French composers of the time,” Jacobsen said. “Claude Debussy’s iconic piece ‘Afternoon of a Faun’ marked a transition from the Romantic era to Modernism. Rodin was at one of the very first performances where [dancer] Nijinsky and the Ballets Russes had choreographed it. Maurice Ravel was well known to Rodin. We’re doing a movement of his quartet as a string orchestra.”
“We’re also playing music from our just-released album called ‘The Kreutzer Project,’ based around Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer Sonata,’ which is an incredible piece. I made an arrangement of it as a violin concerto.”
Rounding out the program will be a world premiere of Colin Jacobsen’s “A Shadow Under Every Light,” a set of folk songs from Moravia and Slovakia that Czech composer Leos Janacek collected, much like his countryman Bela Bartok did around that time.
Janacek had written a string quartet inspired by Tolstoy’s steamy novella “The Kreutzer Sonata,” which featured Beethoven’s work.
“We brought that into the present with new pieces that I wrote as a composer,” Jacobsen explained. “Janacek went around as an ethnomusicologist with early recording devices and recorded hundreds of his country’s folk songs. I made a suite of dances and orchestrated it for The Knights.”
“I’m not quite done, and it’s getting very close, so I’m hoping to finish up this week in the spare moments here in Mexico,” he added.
The ensemble is used to playing new pieces with ink still wet on the page. “It does happen from time to time,” Jacobsen admitted, “which is exciting in its own way.”
The Knights evolved out of a close-knit group of friends about 20 years ago “playing music for fun in our living room,” Jacobsen said. “We did a few projects a year as a string orchestra, and they always had such good energy around them for musicians and audiences.
“When we toured to Europe with [soprano] Dawn Upshaw as our guest, it seemed like it was time to get more serious about it."
He added, "We wanted the orchestral experience to be immediate and intimate and connected, and to really have a firm foot in the music of our time. And to widen the tent for what classical music is and who hears it and what the collaborators are.”
Nowadays, The Knights are widely known throughout the Berkshires. The orchestra and its members have performed at Tanglewood, including a fully-staged production of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide;” at Jacob’s Pillow, where Jacobsen’s wife was a longstanding member of Mark Morris Dance Group; and with South African artist and director William Kentridge's monumental production “The Head and the Load” at Mass MoCA. Jacobsen has also been a founding member of Silkroad for 20 years.
“That’s the beauty of the Berkshires, the nature and the culture just come together,” he said. “It’s an incredible place to explore many facets of the arts. That’s just a magical thing we love, and we hope to keep coming back in many different guises.”
“The new album is an example of how we draw threads from the history of the canon of classical works like Beethoven to the present,” he added. “Half the album is new work, and half is older. [At] the Clark, there’s a dialogue that goes on across cultures, across centuries.”
“We love seeing the music reach people where they are and find new audiences,” he said, “and finding meaningful connections between the arts.”
“The Knights are one of the most amazing and innovative young classical music groups performing these days,” said Vicki Saltzman, director of communications at The Clark. “They’re very au courant with different ways to bring classical music to life for a contemporary audience. Every time they perform at The Clark, our visitors ask when they may come back.
"We’re very excited that they’ll be doing one of their first live performances of a new arrangement of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Concerto that they just released on CD. We’re one of the first venues where they’ll perform that live.”
Clark Director Olivier Meslay is looking forward to hearing the music of his countrymen, she noted. “He’s a big fan of the Knights, and listens to their CDs.”
The Clark presents classical music year-round, not just in the summer.
“We do two performing artists-in-residence concerts a year, in the spring and fall,” Saltzman said. “We just celebrated our 10th year with the series, it’s been a very successful partnership. The November concert will be the first in several years with a full capacity audience.”
“[The Knights co-founder] Colin Jacobsen has performed with our performing artists-in-Residence several times, and will perform with them again in November.”
Mela Haklisch, board chair emeritus of The Knights, introduced the orchestra to The Clark, where she and husband Paul are also members.
“She’s like a fairy godmother,” Saltzman said. “She has been very supportive in bringing them back time and again.”
“Mela has been a vital and essential component of their growth over the last 10 years and is absolutely their biggest cheerleader.”
Live performances have long been a fixture at The Clark, filling the grounds, galleries and auditorium with music of all genres.
“We just had an amazing jazz performance by a Django guitarist, we’ve done Caribbean music, and also local folk musicians.” Saltzman said. “Classical music is an extension of our belief that you can appreciate all the arts by sharing in them in different ways.”
IF YOU GO ...
What: The Knights Orchestra outdoor concert
Where: Fernández Terrace, Clark Art Institute, 225 South St., Williamstown
When: 4 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 4 (Rain date is 4 p.m., Monday, Sept. 5)
Admission: Free, reservations not required. Bring a picnic and your own seating.
What: The Knights Orchestra family-friendly concert
Where: Manton Research Center auditorium, Clark Art Institute, 225 South St., Williamstown
When: Noon, Monday, Sept. 5
Admission: Free, reservations required, parties must include at least one child age 18 or younger and one adult. This performance is intended as an introduction to orchestra music to engage younger audiences.
COVID-19 protocols: Face masks optional.
Reservations and information: 413-458-0524, clarkart.edu