United States Beethoven, Bologne: Gil Shaham (violin), Adele Anthony (viola), Musicians from The Knights. Recorded live at 92nd Street Y, New York on 14.3.2021. (RP)
Beethoven – Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus Op.43 (arr. Hummel), Violin Concerto in D major Op.61 (arr. The Knights)
Bologne – String Quartet No.5 in G minor Op.1
When gardeners speak of the bones of a garden, they are referring to its structure, the elements that remain after the flowers are gone and the leaves have fallen. Structure was foremost on my mind as I listened to Gil Shaham play Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in an arrangement by The Knights in this live concert from the 92nd Street Y. Generally, the advance press is hype but not this time. The Knights’ arrangement of Beethoven’s concerto did reveal it through a fascinating new lens.
The Knights are a Brooklyn-based collective of musicians seeking to transform the orchestral experience and eliminate barriers between audiences and music. The orchestra has toured with Shaham in North America and made a Grammy-nominated recoding of Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto with him. Given the restrictions on public gatherings in New York at present, it was impossible to program a concert with the entire orchestra, so an arrangement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto for smaller forces was the answer.
The concert opened with an arrangement of the Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus by Johann Nepomuk Hummel, an Austrian composer and virtuoso pianist. While he was still a child, his talents were spotted by Mozart, who taught the boy free of charge and even let him live under his roof. Hummel and Beethoven had a complex relationship, although it was Beethoven’s wish that Hummel improvise at his memorial concert, which came to pass.
Beethoven originally scored the overture for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets, with timpani and strings. Hummel was dismissed as being old-fashioned, so adapting this early effort by Beethoven for smaller forces was an easy fit for him. It was likewise for flutist Alex Sopp, violinist Colin Jacobsen, cellist Caitlin Sullivan and pianist Steven Beck, who gave this perennial favorite a fine performance.
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, is enjoying a moment in the sun after centuries of neglect. Born on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, he was the son of an enslaved woman of Senegalese origin and a French plantation owner. A glittering figure in the Ancien Régime, Bologne was made an officer of the king’s guard at seventeen and given the title Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges. He was famous as the best fencer in France and survived the French Revolution with his head.
Bologne was also a violinist and composer. Under his leadership, Les Concerts des Amateurs became the finest orchestra in Paris, premiering Haydn’s six Paris symphonies with Queen Marie Antoinette in attendance. He composed string quartets, violin concertos, symphonies, operas and other works, and his String Quartet No.5 in two movements was among the first of the genre composed in France. It is graceful, elegant music with charming melodies for the violin and cello and a particularly engaging one for the viola. Shaham, Jacobsen, Sullivan and Adele Anthony, who is married to Shaham, performed Bologne’s music with the ease and grace that it demands.
The Knights took Hummel’s choice of instruments as the point of departure for their arrangement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. A five-note figure in the timpani opens the concerto, reappearing as a unifying theme throughout its three movements, and the instrument, played by Ian Sullivan, was rightly deemed indispensable. Grandeur was exchanged for intimacy in the arrangement, but the result in no way diminished the majesty of Beethoven’s music.
Shaham played with all of the sweetness, finesse and passion that the work demands. It made no difference that a quintet of instruments was on stage with him rather than a full orchestra, and that no one was in the hall. The only exception, perhaps, was that some of the softer passages were more intimate and intense than might have been feasible under normal circumstances. One could easily imagine five friends who are extraordinary musicians performing this for themselves and enjoying it immensely, as indeed was the case. There just happened to be a camera filming it.
With the final notes of the concerto resounding in the hall, the six musicians took a bow and Colin Jacobsen said ‘Thank you’. Fingers crossed that applause will soon make his expressions of gratitude inaudible at the end of a concert.
To view Gil Shaham and The Knights at the 92St Y, click here.