The Knights with Wu Man at UCSB’s Campbell Hall

New York Chamber Orchestra Teamed Up with Pipa Virtuoso on February 23

The premise of this marvelous, wide-ranging concert was two-fold. On one hand, it was about the ongoing quest among artists from different musical cultures to discover a Northwest Passage that connects Western traditions with Eastern ones. The most clear-cut example of this tendency would be Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Pipa with String Orchestra, a brilliant, multifaceted exploration of what this Chinese lute can do in tandem with a conventional Western chamber orchestra. On the other hand, the concert brought together a stimulating set of works that revealed different aspects of the idea of color in music. For this concept, virtually any of the choices would be an acceptable instance, with pride of place going to Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, which was pointed out as the beginning of a color revolution in music.

The Knights, who are led by the brothers Colin and Eric Jacobsen, have a grace and rhythmic energy to their playing that’s very appealing, especially when deployed on something like Igor Stravinsky’s Concerto in E-flat (“Dumbarton Oaks”), with which they began the evening. In the second half of the program, the Knights assayed a rousing version of the composition Le Boeuf sur le toit, Op. 58 of Darius Milhaud. The Knights sounded great on it, full of verve and catching all the many internal references and counterpoints. In the evening’s finale, Wu Man returned to play her own composition, Blue and Green. Her immense artistry made it clear why she has become a force to be reckoned with well beyond the sphere of Chinese music.

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