Concert review: The Knights display deeply committed musicmaking skills

The Knights — a hip, collaborative and innovative Brooklyn-based chamber orchestra — made an auspicious Washington debut Monday and Tuesday at the Dumbarton Oaks Museum. Founded by two brothers, veterans of Yo-Yo Ma’s genre-bending Silk Road project, the Knights gave sizzling performances of classics by Bach, Haydn and Stravinsky.

It is a joy to see such deeply committed musicmaking. The Knights have no conductor; only the bassoonist and cellists play seated; every player is viscerally caught up in the shape of every phrase. That they suggest a rock band is not accidental, but the precision of balance and ensemble bespeaks the highest level of musicianship and preparation.

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It is unfortunate that the string soloists play with a thin, quasi-baroque sound (unlike their woodwind colleagues); this affect marred the Bach concerto for oboe and violin and the Haydn “Le Soir” symphony. Given the energy and spirit everywhere else, this counts as just a quibble, but it is odd that so many excellent, conservatory-trained artists prioritize beauty of sound lower today than they used to.

The concert concluded with two unclassifiable works: a Concerto for Santur and Violin by Colin Jacobsen and Siamak Aghaei (a santur is an Iranian hammer dulcimer) and “ . . . the ground beneath our feet,” apparently a group composition by the entire ensemble. The concerto hung together a little better (having fewer cooks than the second piece), though it was still a mish-mash of Middle East and West, including places where the concerto seemed like a Disney movie soundtrack and ending with a kind of Iranian tarantella.

The final work was truly a Mulligan stew, an attempt at blending every kind of non-classical music that each member felt like tossing in — Irish bebop; Indian calypso; Peter, Paul & Mary; and so on. Bemusing, but ultimately silly; the joyous vibe the group clearly shared did not translate into or even suggest music of any permanence.

Battey is a freelance writer.

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