The Knights sounds like the name of a street gang from West Side Story.
But no, it’s a Brooklyn chamber orchestra, made up mostly of young hot-shot players – founded by two musical brothers, cellist Eric and violinist Colin Jacobsen.
As Eric Jacobsen tells it, the history of the orchestra dates to about 2000, when teenaged music students would get together in his Long Island home to play for the fun of it. They jokingly called themselves the Knights of the Many-Sided Table.
The Knights play at the Wortham Theater Center on Wednesday, presented by Society for the Performing Arts Houston. The concert is part of the orchestra’s Texas debut tour: The night before it will be in Austin, and the night following it will be in College Station. Also appearing with the Knights is guest soloist Wu Man, who plays the pipa, a kind of Chinese lute.
For the tour, the orchestra will contain 27 players. But the Knights can number as few as 15 or as many as 50.
“We feel that being able to play small or large makes us better at doing it all,” says Jacobsen, who serves as the orchestra’s conductor – when they need one, and when he’s not playing his cello. Colin Jacobsen is the orchestra’s concertmaster. (The two string players are also members of the Brooklyn Rider quartet.)
In recent years, there’s been a surge in new chamber orchestras across America. Many are in the Northeast – such as the East Coast Chamber Orchestra or New York’s Arcos Orchestra – but some new ensembles are in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Cleveland and other cities. Houston’s River Oaks Chamber Orchestra is part of this trend.
They tend to be young, flexible and innovative. Often, they’re built around personal friendships rather than formal audition procedures.
“It’s also about people wanting to make art with their own rules,” Jacobsen says. “We could be compared to a garage band – people who enjoy each other’s company and who work together. That’s what’s so organic about the group. We come from a similar starting point about how to make music.”
The Knights have been called “hipsters.” But Jacobsen isn’t entirely comfortable with the label.
“I don’t really think so,” he gently protests. “We’re pretty down-to-earth. And we’re not as young as we were 10 years ago. But we don’t want to exclude anyone – so if there’s anyone in the group who’s a hipster, that’s fine.”
In 2007, the Knights made a big splash in New York, with a concert at Carnegie Hall, and began to record for the Sony label. The orchestra now has seven CDs and DVDs, on several labels, with a new all-Beethoven disc released late last year.
Since their Carnegie debut, the Knights have played at Chicago’s Ravinia festival and have toured Germany and Ireland. They’ve teamed with big-name artists such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Itzhak Perlman. And they’ve also taken an interest in non-Western music.
This explains Wu’s involvement in the current tour. Originally from Hangzhou, China, she brought her pipa to the U.S. in 1990 and today is America’s leading exponent of the instrument.
“The pipa has four strings,” the San Diego musician explains. “It’s similar to the lute, guitar, banjo or mandolin, and other plucked instruments.”
She’ll be performing Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Pipa With String Orchestra, which the late American composer created for her in 1997. As well, she’ll play Blue and Green, which she composed. Wu says the piece is partly based on a Chinese folk tune and partly based on a melody her son wrote.
“This is my first big piece with a Western orchestra,” Wu says. “To me, the color blue represents the sky and the ocean, and is peaceful. Green is like springtime: It’s vivid and happy. So one kind of music is lyrical and meditative, the other is exciting. I put them together in one piece.”
Also on the Knights’ program are Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, arranged for chamber orchestra; Igor Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto; and Darius Milhaud’s Le Boeuf sur le Toit.
It’s this kind of eclecticism – mixing old and new, East and West – is typical of the Knights. It’s all part of their goal to break down the categories and boundaries that separate musical genres.
“Like knights,” Jacobsen suggests, “we’re on a quest. There’s a goal, but the quest is itself part of the goal. That’s something that we all hold dear.”
© Colin Eatock 2013