Time in and out of joint at Ozawa Hall

LENOX — Depend on The Knights to scrape the varnish off the concert format. The music may be the same old but the context is twisted. Or the other way around.

Returning to Tanglewood for its fourth visit Thursday night, the Brooklyn-based chamber orchestra made good on a program-book promise to be "your time-traveling vehicle." The machine started theatrically with violinists doing a processional to the Ozawa Hall stage to join in what, in the 17th century, would have been a consort of viols playing Purcell's "Fantasia upon One Note."

Time soon got out of joint, though, when Purcell's sustained C segued straight into the chugging rhythms and pinwheel harmonies of John Adams' early minimalist work "Common Tones in Simple Time." In both cases, stasis ruled. The connection was logical enough but as repetition followed repetition in the Adams piece, the timeless gave way to the mindless.

Yet to come in the program were a jump forward to a brand-new violin concerto and a lurch backward to a Mozart symphony. The last two items would have been conventional enough were it not for the passion — the compassion — behind the fresh sounds of Vijay Iyer's violin concerto, "Trouble," with Jennifer Koh as soloist.

About 40 Knights assembled onstage for this rain-dampened outing under the direction of brothers Colin and Eric Jacobsen. By now, it almost goes without saying that the playing was cleanly defined and consistently expressive. Brooklyn may be the kind of place that, if you're not from there, you love to hate for its gentrified airs. For performances like these, all is forgiven.

Iyer's "Trouble," a BSO co-commission, was played here in its East Coast premiere. Without being preachy or obvious about it, the piece seeks to "unify" (Iyer's word, from the stage) people in these disunited, troubled times. In requesting a concerto from Koh, he wrote in the program book, he wanted the soloist to "embody the relationship of an artist to her community," more "shaman" than "hero" as in a traditional concerto. (Both composer and soloist, be it noted, are Asian-American.)

The six short movements range from striking harmonies and strange rattles to angry cries and soaring lyricism, with an extended cadenza of heightened emotion. But at the heart is a moving third-movement threnody for a Chinese-American man killed by thugs near Detroit. Koh was a powerful advocate for music that affirms continuing human values in a time of danger to those values.                                                  

Eric Jacobsen conducted the Adams and Iyer pieces, but for the finale, Mozart's melancholic G minor Symphony No. 40, the orchestra went conductorless in the manner of Mozart's time. The performance, with some repeats omitted, was stylish, full-bodied and full of Mozartean drama.


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