The Knights are dedicated to transforming the orchestral experience and eliminating barriers between audience and music. The New York Times has described them as “an adventurous young orchestra that has established a strong reputation for polished performances and imaginative programming.” The ensemble performs the world premiere of a new work by Anna Clyne and the Brahms String Sextet No. 2 in G, Op. 36.
Colin Jacobsen, violin
Emily Daggett Smith, violin
Kyle Armbrust, viola
Mario Gotoh, viola
Eric Jacobsen, cello
Karen Ouzounian, cello
Logan Coale, bass
Anna Clyne Shorthand (World Premiere)
Karen Ouzounian, cello soloist
Brahms String Sextet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 36
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The Knights are a collective of adventurous musicians dedicated to transforming the orchestral experience and eliminating barriers between audiences and music. Driven by an open-minded spirit of camaraderie and exploration, they inspire listeners with vibrant programs that encompass their roots in the classical tradition and passion for artistic discovery. The orchestra has toured and recorded with renowned soloists including Yo-Yo Ma, Dawn Upshaw, Béla Fleck, and Gil Shaham, and has performed at Carnegie Hall, Tanglewood, and the Vienna Musikverein.
The Knights evolved from late-night chamber music reading parties with friends at the home of violinist Colin Jacobsen and cellist Eric Jacobsen. The Jacobsen brothers, who are also founding members of the string quartet Brooklyn Rider, serve as artistic directors of The Knights, with Eric Jacobsen as conductor. The Knights are committed to creating unusual and adventurous partnerships across disciplines; they perform in traditional concert halls as well as parks, plazas, and bars, all in an effort to reach listeners of all backgrounds and invite them into their music-making. Since incorporating in 2007, the orchestra has toured consistently across the United States and Europe.
Counted among the highlights from recent seasons are: a performance with Yo-Yo Ma at Caramoor; the recording of Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto on master violinist Gil Shaham’s Grammy-nominated 2016 release, 1930s Violin Concertos, Vol. 2, as well as a North American tour with Shaham; residencies at Dartmouth, Penn State, and Washington D.C.’s Dumbarton Oaks; and a performance in the NY PHIL BIENNIAL along with the San Francisco Girls Chorus (led by composer Lisa Bielawa) and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, which featured world premieres by Rome Prize-winner Bielawa, Pulitzer Prize-winner Aaron Jay Kernis, and Knights violinist and co-founder Colin Jacobsen. The ensemble made its Carnegie Hall debut in the New York premiere of the Steven Stucky/Jeremy Denk opera The Classical Style, and has toured the U.S. with banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck and Europe with soprano Dawn Upshaw. In recent years The Knights have also collaborated with Itzhak Perlman, the Mark Morris Dance Group, Joshua Redman, Silk Road virtuoso Siamak Aghaei, and pipa virtuoso Wu Man. Recordings include 2015’s “instinctive and appealing” (The Times, UK) the ground beneath our feet on Warner Classics, featuring the ensemble’s first original group composition; an all-Beethoven disc on Sony Classical (their third project with the label); and 2012’s “smartly programmed” (NPR) A Second of Silence for Ancalagon.
The Knights are proud to be known as “one of Brooklyn’s sterling cultural products…known far beyond the borough for their relaxed virtuosity and expansive repertory” (The New Yorker). Their roster boasts musicians of remarkably diverse talents, including composers, arrangers, singer-songwriters, and improvisers, who bring a range of cultural influences to the group, from jazz and klezmer to pop and indie rock music. The unique camaraderie within the group retains the intimacy and spontaneity of chamber music in performance. Through the palatable joy and friendship in their music-making, each musician strives to include new and familiar audiences to experience this important art form.
Shorthand for Solo Cello and String Quintet (2020)
About the Composer
An extraordinarily innovative creator, Anna Clyne draws her ideas from many sources besides the purely musical. She often launches her compositions not by experimenting at the piano but instead by creating a collage painting for her studio wall, embodying visually what she wants her new piece to say sonically. Clyne’s music is known for its emotional power as well as for its visceral energy and very colorful use of instruments. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Music Director Riccardo Muti describes her as “an artist who writes from the heart, who defies categorization, and who reaches across all barriers and boundaries.”
Born in London, Clyne is currently living in the United States, where for several seasons she served as the Chicago Symphony’s Mead Composer-in-Residence; she has held similar posts with California’s Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music and with the Orchestre National d’Ile de France. Her music is in great demand by major orchestras in America and Europe and has been presented in such diverse concert locations as New York’s trendy Le Poisson Rouge and the establishment icon Carnegie Hall.
Describing how she came to be a composer, Clyne writes: “When I was seven years old, some family friends gave us a piano. As soon as I started playing music, I also started composing music — it was a symbiotic relationship. I enjoyed the process of getting lost in an imaginary world and creating short pieces for myself and my friends to play. … I didn’t have formal lessons until the third year of my undergraduate degree whilst on an exchange year at Queens University in Canada with Marjan Mozetich and continued my studies upon returning to Edinburgh University with Marina Adamia, later studying at Manhattan School of Music with Julia Wolfe. I feel fortunate to have had such wonderful female role models as my mentors and am grateful for the barriers the previous generation has broken in order to create a more diverse and equal field today. I don’t think of myself as a ‘female composer’ but simply as a ‘composer.’”
— Jan Bedell
About the Work
Shorthand is a new work for The Knights — for solo cello and string quintet — that I’ll later arrange for solo cello and string orchestra for the Orlando Philharmonic. It takes its title from Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Kreutzer Sonata, in which he writes that ‘Music is the shorthand of emotion. Emotions, which let themselves be described in words with such difficulty, are directly conveyed to man in music, and in that is its power and significance.’
Shorthand draws its inspiration from the opening theme of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, for violin and piano, a work that subsequently inspired Tolstoy’s novella, and from a second theme that in turn inspired thematic material in Janáček’s String Quartet No. 1, ‘Kreutzer Sonata,’ also based on the novella. The opening material for Shorthand is drawn from the Janácek quartet. Both versions of Shorthand are dedicated to my husband, Jody Elff.
I began the process of composing this work by spending time with recordings and scores of both the Beethoven and the Janáček, and marking gestures and melodic ideas that caught my ear. … For the chamber version for The Knights, the orchestration of the ensemble is quite intimate – weaving contrapuntal lines between the soloist and the individual musicians of the quintet.
Shorthand is one of four works that I am writing in response to existing works. These have included Sound and Fury for chamber orchestra inspired by Haydn’s ‘Il Distratto’ Symphony No. 60; Breathing Statues for string quartet inspired by Beethoven’s late String Quartets (for the Calidore Quartet and played last week at Caramoor); and Stride for string orchestra, which is inspired by Beethoven’s ‘Pathétique’ Sonata.
— Anna Clyne
String Sextet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 36
About the Composer
In his famous article “New Paths,” published in 1853, Schumann lauded the 20-year-old Brahms as a genius who had sprung forth “like Minerva fully armed from the head of Jove.” Listening to Brahms play his works on the piano, the older composer found himself “drawn into ever deeper circles of enchantment … There were sonatas, rather veiled symphonies—songs, whose poetry one could understand without knowing the words . . . single pianoforte pieces, partly demoniacal, of the most graceful form — then sonatas for violin and piano — quartets for strings — and every one so different from the rest that each seemed to flow from a separate source.” We know nothing about the early string quartets that worked their spell on Schumann, for Brahms destroyed every last one of them. Indeed, by the time he wrote the second of his two string sextets in the mid-1860s, he had written and discarded no fewer than 20 quartets, none of which measured up to his exacting standards.
About the Work
Brahms composed the first three movements of the G-Major Sextet at Lichtenthal, near Baden-Baden, in the summer of 1864. The only person with whom he seems to have shared his work in progress was Schumann’s wife, Clara. “I need hardly tell you how surprised and overjoyed I am at what you have sent me,” she exclaimed. “Such a great work in hand, and nobody had any idea of its existence!”
After completing the finale a year later, Brahms offered his new work to Fritz Simrock, the publisher of his popular String Sextet in B-flat Major, describing the two pieces somewhat disingenuously as “similarly gay in character.” Simrock turned the G-Major Sextet down, presumably on commercial rather than aesthetic grounds. Next Brahms approached the venerable Leipzig firm of Breitkopf & Härtel, who accepted the Sextet but later reneged when one of their advisors gave it a thumbs-down. Understandably put out, Brahms decided to give Simrock a second chance, and by April 1866 the printed score was in his hands.
A Deeper Listen
Few of Brahms’s works show a more carefully calibrated balance between exuberance and introspection than the second of his two string sextets. The opening of the Allegro non troppo is harmonically unsettled and charged with nervous energy, a stream of alternating half-steps in the first viola rippling beneath the first violin’s suavely arching melody. These two themes, plus a contrasting subject in radiant D major that the first cello introduces toward the end of the exposition, provide ample grist for Brahms’s mill. The music surges to a climax on an emphatic five-note theme whose pitches spell out the name of Agathe von Siebold, a young woman to whom the composer was briefly engaged in the late 1850s. (Brahms, who never married, declared that “by this work I have freed myself of my last love.”)
In the G-minor Scherzo, Brahms recycled a rather plaintive gavotte tune that he had written several years earlier, setting it off against a rollicking major-key middle section marked Presto giocoso. The character of the slow movement is distinctly melancholic, as Brahms puts the lugubrious adagio theme through a set of distantly related variations full of searching chromatic harmonies and intricately woven part writing. A quiet E-major cadence leads to a triple-time Poco allegro that is by turns bracing and tender. The finale plays on two basic ideas: repeated eighth notes, alternately dancing and cascading, and a broad, noble tune springing from the strings’ lower register. The first cello adds a vigorous countermelody that soars and swoops ecstatically, and after a notably concise development section, a lively fugal episode brings the work to a spirited conclusion.
— Harry Haskell