The contemporary-music scene in New York has been generating a nearly endless stream of high-powered young ensembles over the past decade. On Sunday night, one of the most imaginative of them — a musical collective known as the Knights — came to Dumbarton Oaks as part of the museum’s Friends of Music series.
Delving into the tumultuous years around World War I, the Knights explored the birth of the modern world, contrasting lush, emotional works rooted in the past (Ernest Bloch’s “Prayer” for cello and piano) against modern (and decidedly anti-lush) works from Anton Webern and Igor Stravinsky.
The evening opened with a warm and surprisingly conventional work from Sergei Prokofiev. The “Overture on Hebrew Themes,” Op. 34, from 1919 is a languorous, soft-edged work, whose every note seems to glow with sensuality and even nostalgia. It’s a world away from the more biting, forward-looking music of Prokofiev’s later years, and the players underscored the point by leaping into modernism with Maurice Ravel’s Piano Trio in A Minor, from 1914. With Eric Jacobsen (one of the founders of the group) on cello, the deft Guillaume Pirard on violin and Steven Beck at the piano, the ensemble turned in a delicate, beautifully drawn account of the work, full of shifting light and elusive colors and with a sense of improvisatory freedom.
Anton Webern’s “Three Little Pieces for Cello and Piano,” Op. 11, are so perfectly concise that they barely exist. But these quick-witted miniatures punch far above their weight, and when they appeared, in 1914 — foreshadowing the emergence of Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone system — they marked a strikingly original step forward. Jacobsen and Beck played through all of the works twice (in only five minutes) in a fine and thoroughly convincing reading.
Caroline Shaw’s arrangement of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Tierkreis: Leo” from 1974-1975 followed. Chronologically, it was a bit of an anomaly, but a welcome one — and much more tuneful and charming than you might expect from the difficult-on-many-levels Stockhausen. But it was Stravinsky’s Suite No. 2 from “The Soldier’s Tale” that really made the evening. Built around a folk tale, it’s a colorful, earthy work full of wild sonorities and hard-charging dances — a sort of Chagall painting come to life. The musicians, led by the fine violinist Ariana Kim, gave it a spirited, wonderfully playful reading.
Brookes is a freelance writer.