Lara St. John shines in Dorman concerto with The Knights in Central Park

Wed Jul 27, 2022 at 2:25 pm
Lara St. John performed Avner Dorman’s Violin Concerto No. 2 “Nigunim” with The Knights Tuesday evening at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park. Photo: Clive Barda

On most lazy summer days, Central Park’s Naumburg Bandshell stands aside from the human presence, a visitor from a Neo-Classical planet that somehow landed in the middle of F.L. Olmsted’s rustic Romantic landscape. At its feet, in a broad plaza still known as the Concert Ground, in-line wizards twirl their skates and breakdance virtuosi spin on select sheets of No. 4 cardboard.

But every so often, as the summer sun dips low, classical musicians rise from the haze like Brigadoon, and an ancient tradition of concerts in the park—variously describable as 99, 117 or 153 years old—lives again. 

On Tuesday, Naumberg Orchestral Concerts—founded by philanthropist Elkan Naumburg in 1905–presented the Brooklyn-based ensemble The Knights with violin soloist Lara St. John at the namesake bandshell, which will celebrate its centennial next year.

And following the example of the first classical concert in Central Park in 1859, which offered music by a couple of promising youngsters named Wagner and Verdi, Tuesday’s program included a brilliant concerto by the fast-rising Israeli-born composer Avner Dorman, the Symphony No. 3 (“Scottish”) by the 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn, and the world premiere of Keeping On, a collaborative work by The Knights themselves.

In a city abuzz with communication, transportation, sanitation, and tourism both on the ground and in the air, outdoor classical performances face a hive of potential distractions. On this night, however, it seemed that the bees had all gone home, and the hundreds of listeners—mostly in rows of chairs but also on the occasional picnic blanket—could savor the nuances of highly professional music-making.

Few pieces would benefit more from that kind of close attention than Keeping On, a delightful musical gadget that originated as the score to a pandemic-shutdown video featuring members of the group playing at home. Inspired by the forging-ahead-despite-obstacles example of Ludwig van Beethoven, and by a rehearsal at which the group loop-repeated a section of his Fifth Symphony to achieve better flow, co-artistic director and conductor Eric Jacobsen conceived a sort of musical adventure propelled by that work’s famous four-note motive.

Jacobsen ran the idea by his fellow Knights, eight of whom came back with additional melodic suggestions. Hornist and arranger Michael P. Atkinson wove the contributions into a colorful piece that sent a message of cool confidence into a pandemic-rattled world. In Tuesday’s premiere live performance, no video editing was needed as the aural spotlight moved from player to player, until finally violinist Christina Courtin and flutist Alex Sopp stepped to the microphones to coo the healing words “Keep on…keeping on…” in euphonious thirds.

No world catastrophe loomed over Avner Dorman’s Nigunim (Melodies) when he transformed it from a violin sonata to his Violin Concerto No. 2 in 2017 but the piece expressed enough of the joys and sorrows of the composer’s heritage to earn it the Azrieli Prize for Jewish Music the following year. As the piece received its New York City premiere Tuesday in the bandshell, violinist Lara St. John intoned the opening Adagio Religioso in mournful double stops over an ominous orchestral rumble, then matched the clarinet’s klezmer wails with a bursting fury of fast string-crossing before floating free of the deep orchestra with uncanny high harmonics.

For comic relief, the Scherzo poked the ear with sassy dissonances, pizzicato strumming, cross-rhythms and sneering glissandos—a whimsical tour de force that brought delighted applause at the end. The Adagio, by contrast, throbbed with weird acoustic “beats” in both the winds and the soloist’s microtonal double stops, before the violin took flight and the orchestra followed it into the pitch stratosphere. The Presto finale galumphed to a fast 2+2+3 beat, with orchestral syncopations on top of that, driving soloist and ensemble together in a long, exciting final crescendo.

As if one movement of blazing fiddling weren’t enough, St. John offered a topper encore, her own arrangement of the traditional dance tune “Ultania Hora.”  While two players from the orchestra laid down a drum-like accompaniment on cello and double bass, St. John wowed he audience with a Sarasate-style flurry of pizzicato tricks, fast harmonics, and tunes up in the dog range. For deeply expressive playing with a virtuoso cherry on top, St. John deserved some kind of award herself Tuesday night.

After intermission, conductor Jacobsen engaged in a bit of chat with WQXR radio personality Paul Cavalconte, the concert’s host onstage and in the live radio simulcast. As a glorious sunset painted the limestone bandshell orange, the talk turned to natural scenery in Israel and Scotland, but in both the Dorman and the Mendelssohn performances it was the nigunim, the tunes, that mattered most.

Ironically, in the Olmstedian outdoors, it was Mendelssohn’s Romantic symphony that seemed at a disadvantage. The concert’s sound engineering, while subtle enough to preserve the illusion of live, unmediated performance, seemed to favor the group’s two double basses over everybody else, while the sound of the higher strings seemed to dissipate in the open air. Woodwinds—the favored outdoor medium of Haydn and Mozart—fared better, but overall blending and sound chemistry proved elusive.

Still, there was no mistaking the energy and commitment of conductor and players in the eventful first movement. One missed only that feeling of lift and momentum that could string those events together so that climaxes came in waves and there was tension even in the pauses. However, the Scherzo—the hearty Scottish kind, not Mendelssohnian fairy music—was crisply in time, led by right-on woodwinds.

More of that crispness would have benefited the middle section of the Adagio, to heighten contrast with the lovely handoffs of melody between strings and winds in the outer sections. The Allegro vivacissimo finale again faced the problem of how to make repeated quarter-notes seem to lift off the page, but Jacobsen was making progress on that front when he arrived at those haunting bars of epilogue for the clarinet and bassoon, followed by a parting chorale as splendid as that fondly remembered sunset.

ECCO: East Coast Chamber Orchestra performs works of Hailstork, Schubert, and Renaissance music from Peru 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Naumburg Bandshell.

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