Gil Shaham and The Knights open the 116th season of Naumburg Orchestral Concerts in Central Park

United StatesUnited States Various: Aoife O’Donovan (vocals), Gil Shaham (violin), The Knights / Eric Jacobsen (conductor). Naumburg Orchestral Concerts, Naumburg Bandshell, New York, 15.6.2021. (RP)

The Naumburg Bandshell

Siamak Aghaei & Colin Jacobsen – ‘Ascending Bird’
George T. Walker – ‘Lyric for Strings’
Aoife O’Donovan – ‘America, Come’
Beethoven – Violin Concerto in D Major Op.61 (arr. Michael P. Atkinson)

It was a perfect June evening in New York, and there was much to celebrate. The Naumburg Orchestral Concerts, the world’s oldest free and continuous outdoor classical series, was launching its 116th season at the newly restored Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park. If that wasn’t reason enough to celebrate, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo had announced earlier in the day that 70 percent of adults in New York State had received at least one dose of the vaccine, and virtually all restrictions on business and social gatherings were lifted. Life was returning to normal.

The Naumburg family’s love of music and their desire to share it with others has spanned over 150 years, but it was in 1905 that Elkan Naumburg envisioned presenting free symphonic concerts in Central Park. Naumburg, who was born in Bavaria in 1835, immigrated to the US when he was 15 years old and settled in New York three years later. He amassed a fortune though a career that saw him rise from merchant to banker. The bank that he founded, E. Naumburg & Co., was one of the largest commercial banks on Wall Street, rivaled at the time by Goldman Sachs.

In 1912 Naumburg offered the city $125,000 to build a new bandshell in Central Park to replace an earlier one that had been hosting musical performances since the 1860s. Construction was delayed due to the First World War, and the bandshell opened in 1923. In the early 1990s, the Naumburg family successfully blocked the city from demolishing it, and the parks commissioner at the time was forced to ‘make the best of a bad situation’. The bandshell has gone on to host summer concert and dance performances and is cherished as one of the city’s architectural treasures.

Gil Shaham (violin) & The Knights

The opening concert of the 2021 summer season brought together The Knights, the Brooklyn-based orchestra that is one of the hottest acts on the scene, the equally exciting violinist Gil Shaham and Grammy award-winning songwriter and musician Aoife O’Donovan. The concert, however, opened with a work not listed on the program: ‘Ascending Bird’ by Iranian composer Siamak Aghaei and violinist and composer Colin Jacobsen, who co-founded The Knights with his brother, Eric.

‘Ascending Bird’ is based on an Iranian folk song about a mythical bird on a spiritual journey. When introducing it, Jacobsen made an analogy to the tale of the phoenix that rises from the ashes, as has New York which is quickly recovering from its days as an epicenter of the pandemic. The work was premiered in 2011 by the YouTube Symphony Orchestra at the Sydney Opera House and has been viewed by over a million people. Its melodies are shared by two violins and a cello, driven forward by incisive rhythms and punctuated by the lively beat of drums. Six minutes in length, ‘Ascending Bird’ is exotic musically and brims with hope.

George T. Walker was the first Black composer to win a Pulitzer Prize for Music, in 1996 for ‘Lilacs’ for soprano and orchestra. ‘Lyric for Strings’, composed in 1946 and performed here, is one of his most popular compositions. Inspired by his classmate Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’, Walker dedicated ‘Lyric for Strings’ to his maternal grandmother, who had died the previous year. The Knights’ strings performed eloquently, both as soloists and as an ensemble, as they explored the range of sounds that Walker exploited in this subtle, evocative work.

In ‘America Come’, Aoife O’Donovan celebrated the centenary of the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution which gave women the right to vote. It’s a sprawling work that is in equal parts history lesson and ballad, bound together by O’Donovan’s eclectic and sophisticated mix of musical styles ranging from folk to classical. O’Donovan is an expert storyteller who got more than a few toes tapping with her impassioned delivery and guitar playing.

The concert concluded with one of the most joyous performances of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto imaginable, with Gil Shaham as soloist in an arrangement by Michael P. Atkinson. A member of The Knights since 2010, Atkinson serves as its solo horn player and has created arrangements, orchestrations and original compositions for the ensemble. Shaham, who lives in Manhattan, couldn’t contain his joy at performing in front of a live audience on this special evening in Central Park. His playing was exuberant, yet astonishingly intimate. For all of his virtuosity, it was his pianissimos throbbing with intensity that made the performance so memorable.

The brass and woodwinds were especially sonorous and rich, perhaps a function of Atkinson’s arrangement or the acoustical properties of the bandshell. Whatever the reason, their sounds added a rustic sensibility to the Beethoven, seldom encountered in a concert hall, which was intensified by the singing of birds and the rustling of the American elms that frame the bandshell, as if nature herself were joining in the celebration.

The concert was aired live over WQXR-FM, New York’s classical musical station (another part of the Naumburg family’s musical legacy to the city), and it can be heard on its website.

Rick Perdian

To listen to this opening concert click here.

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