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Knights, Dawn Upshaw celebrate folk influence on classical music with ranging fare at Ravinia

Submitted by on Jul 7, 2015 – 10:40 am

Soprano Dawn Upshaw performed Berio's Folk Songs with the Knights at the Ravinia Festival. (Ravinia, Pedro de Jesus)Review: The Knights conducted by Eric Jacobsen with soprano Dawn Upshaw, at the Ravinia Festival.

By Daniel Hautzinger

Composers have long been fascinated by folk music. From Josquin des Prez’s late 15th-century “Missa L’homme armé,” based on a popular French tune, to Donnacha Dennehy’s Irish music-inspired “Grá agus bás” from 2007, folk songs have often made their mark on classical music, either through direct transcription or simple inspiration.

On July 5 at Ravinia’s Martin Theatre, the iconoclastic chamber orchestra the Knights, joined by the likewise singular soprano Dawn Upshaw, gamboled through some of the vibrant repertoire that has emerged from composers’ attraction to folk music throughout the centuries.

Eric Jacobsen led the Knights at Ravinia. (Ravinia, Pedro de Jesus)As always, the Knights presented an intelligently structured program of lesser-known works, by Dvořák, Luciano Berio, Schubert, Zhou Long, and Ligeti. In fact, every piece enjoyed its Ravinia premiere, which perhaps says more about the extent of repertoire standardization than it does about the Knights’ programming.

Dvořák’s Czech Suite does not utilize any authentic folk tunes, and only received the appellation “Czech” at its premiere. Yet three of its five movements are in the form of Eastern European dances (polka, sousedská, and furiant), and its asymmetrical rhythms are suffused with the lively accents characteristic of Czech and Polish music.

Conductor Eric Jacobsen allowed the Preludium to unfold in mystery, the vibrato-less, expansive string lines creeping like shadows shrinking underneath the rising sun. The Knights wholeheartedly attacked the boisterous accents of the polka and furiant finale, which is a rustic peasant dance on an epic scale, augmented by Beethovenian thunder-strokes and timpani rolls. It’s rare to see an ensemble enjoy themselves as much as the Knights did in these thrilling dances.

The spotlight was on soprano Dawn Upshaw in a program with the Knights at the Ravinia Festival. (Ravinia, Pedro de Jesus)What Dvořák did with folk music in the finale of his suite, reimagining it as grand drama, Dawn Upshaw did in Berio’s Folk Songs, imbuing these idiosyncratic arrangements of melodies from the US, Armenia, France, Italy, Sardinia and Azerbaijan with operatic passion. Berio augments these memorable songs with flickering strings, spiky wind arabesques and tolling harp to create unexpected and exciting landscapes, as in the Arabic-tinged “A la femminisca” from Sicily. Upshaw has recorded this cycle, and her familiarity with the songs was obvious: The Sardinian “Motettu de tristura” was desperately yearning, and in the closing “Azerbaijan love song,” one could easily picture her running through the streets exclaiming her abundant joy.

After the vitality of the Dvořák and Berio, Schubert’s Five German Dances, D. 90, for strings seemed particularly bland. Though the Knights were no less energetic, the Dances are little more than shapely, forgettable melodies with little life.

Pulitzer Prize winner Zhou Long, who was born in China, arranged traditional melodies for string orchestra in his Eight Chinese Folk Songs, four of which the Knights performed in their own arrangement for string quartet and double bass. But, like the Schubert, these are straightforward settings, unremarkable despite their rollicking drive.

The electricity of the first half of the program returned in the last piece, Ligeti’s “Concert românesc.” An early work, the “Concert” doesn’t include the avant-garde ingenuities of Ligeti’s later music, but it still contains a characteristic irreverence. Orchestration as colorful as some of the Knights’ eye-popping socks, destabilizing rhythmic shifts, rapid mood swings, and feisty fervor allowed the Knights to once again revel in the music with their signature energy, a suitably rowdy close to a barnstorming night of folk-inspired music.  

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