The Knights premiere Leshnoff concerto with Gil Shaham at Shriver Hall

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Brave Knights took the stage at Shriver Hall to premiere a violin concerto and play a Beethoven symphony.

In a commendable move, Shriver Hall Concert Series is marking its 50th anniversary not just with a roster of top-flight artists, but new music commissioned by the organization for the celebratory season.

The third and last of the commissions, the appealing Chamber Concerto for Violin and Orchestra by Baltimore-based Jonathan Leshnoff, received its world premiere Sunday evening. The piece certainly had a great launch, thanks to exceptional violinist Gil Shaham and the adventurous orchestral collective from New York called The Knights.

Leshnoff, who teaches at Towson University, is increasingly sought after by soloists, chamber groups and orchestras. No wonder. His style is directly communicative, but never glib; multi-layered, but never dense.

If you had to pick category for the composer, it would probably be neo-romantic. In some corners, that could be a pejorative, so I'll just call it lyrical. And this new concerto is nothing if not lyrical.

The first of its two movements, titled after the fifth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, is built around an exquisite song for the violin that rises and falls with an elegant arc that Erich Korngold or Samuel Barber would surely have admired. There is a radiance to this music, tinged with something like nostalgia, something bittersweet. 

Leshnoff switches gears completely in the second movement, which goes for almost perpetual motion energy. Near the end, the bravura lets up enough to allow something of the concerto's initial poetry to be expressed by the soloist, before a final whirlwind of activity.

Shaham played with exquisite tenderness throughout the opening movement and demonstrated equally impressive confidence and control in the finale. The Knights gave him sure, sensitivity backing, conducted by Eric Jacobsen, the ensemble's founding co-artistic director.

The other founding artistic director, concertmaster Colin Jacobsen (Eric's brother) smoothly partnered Shaham in Sarasate's frothy "Navarra," with mostly tight support from the orchestra.

Orchestral works bookended the wide-ranging program, starting with "Les Caracteres de la Danse" from 1715 by Jean-Fery Rebel. It's a fun ride through a whole bunch of baroque dance forms, each flowing seamlessly into the next. The players, most of them standing, a la 18th-century practice, dug into the colorful music with finesse and expressive nuance.

To close, The Knights -- with about three dozen musicians, the biggest group I've encountered on a Shriver Hall Concert Series presentation -- tackled Beethoven's "Eroica." It was, by and large, a satisfying performance.

Eric Jacobsen's tempos balanced propulsion and breadth in the first movement; allowed for a good deal of spaciousness in the funeral march; and sent the scherzo and finale scurrying effectively.

The transparency from the chamber-sized forces enabled wonderful details to come through with great clarity at every turn (the strings kept vibrato at a minimum). If there were occasional ragged edges in execution, the expressive vitality of the playing easily carried the day.

I hope The Knights are invited back -- and soon.

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