Find­ing com­mon­al­ity across di­vide

Is­raeli and Syr­ian mu­si­cians brighten Brook­lyn Knights at so-so Broad con­cert.


The Brook­lyn-based en­sem­ble the Knights bombed when it was in res­i­dence at the Ojai Mu­sic Fes­ti­val in 2014. Al­though the cham­ber orches­tra has friends in high places through its as­so­ci­a­tion with Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road En­sem­ble, there was no­tice­able an­noy­ance among so­phis­ti­cated pa­trons who rec­og­nized artis­tic and mu­si­cal stan­dards not com­pa­ra­ble with those of the finest and most pro­gres­sive South­ern Cal­i­for­nia en­sem­bles.

Ojai, how­ever, hardly meant good night, Knights. The group has con­tin­ued to per­form reg­u­larly around New York City, to tour (in­clud­ing to pres­ti­gious Euro­pean fes­ti­vals) and to work with top-flight soloists. The main at­trac­tion of the group’s lat­est record­ing is a pow­er­ful per­for­mance of Os­valdo Goli­jov’s grip­ping cello con­certo “Azul,” fea­tur­ing Ma as soloist. On the other hand, the record­ing also in­cludes an em­bar­rass­ingly schmaltzy ar­range­ment of Dvorák’s “Song of the Moon” that might have oth­er­wise voided the Knights’ hip cre­den­tials.

On Wed­nes­day night, the Knights opened fall’s clas­si­cal sea­son, or what lit­tle there is of one, at the Broad Stage in Santa Mon­ica. The main at­trac­tion this time was the ex­cep­tional Is­raeli man­dolin­ist Avi Avi­tal, who seemed to be the draw for a well-dressed crowd and maybe the rea­son for ticket prices that be­gan at $70 and rose to $120.

The news, though, in-

cluded the evening’s other soloist. Syr­ian clar­inetist Ki­nan Azmeh per­formed along with Avi­tal and also premiered his new con­certo, Con­certino Grosso.

One of the more promis­ing as­pects of the in­ter­na­tional clas­si­cal mu­sic scene is that the in­spir­ing ca­ma­raderie of these two great play­ers from op­pos­ing coun­tries is no longer un­com­mon. The spec­tac­u­lar re­sults of Daniel Baren­boim’s West-East­ern Di­van Orches­tra, which trains promis­ing Is­raeli and Arab mu­si­cians to­gether, is now a tri­umphant fact of mu­si­cal life.

What was strik­ing about Avi­tal and Azmeh was not their dif­fer­ences but what they shared. The con­cert be­gan with vi­o­las stand­ing in the back and in­ton­ing mid­dle C as Avi­tal and Azmeh gin­gerly be­gan a joint im­pro­vi­sa­tion. A ten­ta­tive noo­dle on the man­dolin, and its softly sug­ared re­sponse on the clar­inet, grad­u­ally grew into ex­u­ber­ance. The man­dolin evoked an Arab oud. The Mid­dle East­ern char­ac­ter of Azmeh’s rhap­sodic clar­inet brought to mind klezmer.

Through­out the in­con­sis­tent evening, these thoughts of like-mind­ed­ness came and went. Some of what tran­spired was aw­ful. Some of it was ac­cept­able. And mo­ments were truly in­spired.

To be­gin at the bot­tom, the or­ches­tral ar­range­ment of Schu­bert’s song “The Shep­herd on the Rock” by Knights’ leader, vi­o­lin­ist Colin Ja­cob­sen, was cringe­wor­thy. Schu­bert’s pi­ano part was trans­ferred to strings, slid­ing from note to note as though play­ing on the soupy sound­track of a 1930s Hol­ly­wood tear­jerker. Avi­tal ac­com­pa­nied the mid­dle sec­tion with the kinds of man­dolin tremolo you might ex­pect to hear in an Ital­ian restau­rant of yes­ter­year.

The vo­cal part oddly went to Knights’ flutist Alex Sopp. Azmeh played Schu­bert’s orig­i­nal clar­inet part with os­ten­ta­tious free­dom that ac­tu­ally wasn’t free enough. Had he let go all the way, this could have be­come an ef­fec­tive jazz piece, and Ja­cob­sen could have got­ten away with any­thing he liked as backup.

Avi­tal’s big piece was his ar­range­ment of Bach’s First Harp­si­chord Con­certo. It didn’t work, ei­ther. Too much harp­si­chord coun­ter­point was lost.

The Knights do not have the focus for Baroque mu­sic, and that was also a prob­lem in Pur­cell’s “Fan­ta­sia Upon One Note,” the fol­lowup to the im­pro­vi­sa­tion that opened the con­cert.

Iron­i­cally, the en­sem­ble might have been just right for Anna Clyne’s ex­quis­ite man­dolin con­certo, “Three Sis­ters,” that Avi­tal premiered this past sum­mer in Ham­burg.

Azmeh’s own Con­certino Grosso, which had had its world pre­miere two days ear­lier in Ithaca, N.Y. (not far from where Clyne wrote “Three Sis­ters”), is lik­able. He is a ver­sa­tile clar­inetist, able to se­duce with a rare in­ti­macy and ex­plode in ec­stasy. He wrote in a di­a­logue with Ja­cob­sen that was full of nos­tal­gia. He al­lowed for a melodic nos­tal­gia for his home­land, also the source of his ear­lier “Novem­ber 22nd,” which also was on the pro­gram.

But it wasn’t un­til the evening’s fi­nal work — Ja­cob­sen’s ar­rest­ing ar­range­ment, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Sia­mak Aghaei, of an Ira­nian folk tune — that ev­ery­thing came ir­re­sistibly to­gether. Avi­tal and Azmeh added their two cents’ worth, im­prov­ing fur­ther what is al­ready an au­then­ti­cally bril­liant mul­ti­cul­tural ar­range­ment. The Knights clearly have some­thing mean­ing­ful to say, just not in tra­di­tional clas­si­cal mu­sic.

Ben Gibbs

P L AY I N G to­gether with the Knights are, fore­ground, from left, vi­o­lin­ist Colin Ja­cob­sen, Is­raeli man­dolin­ist Avi Avi­tal and Syr­ian clar­inetist Ki­nan Azmeh.

Ben Gibbs

IS­RAELI man­dolin­ist Avi Avi­tal per­forms with the Knights en­sem­ble in Santa Mon­ica on Wed­nes­day.

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