Towards the end of 2014, the Brooklyn-based orchestral collective known as The Knights announced their debut as exclusive Warner Classics artists; and their debut album, entitled the ground beneath our feet was released in January of 2015. This coming Friday Warner will release their second album, Azul; and, as usual, Amazon.com has already created a Web page for the album from which pre-orders may be placed. The title of the album is also the title of the longest composition to be included, a work by Osvaldo Golijov that had been commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and written for cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who gave the premiere performance. Ma is also soloist in this performance; and, along with his performance in two shorter selections, his contribution amounts to more than half of the entire album.
Ma seems to be building up a reputation as the Yehudi Menuhin of this new century. This has less to do with his music-making than the way in which he has established himself as a “citizen of the world,” not only through his global presence as a performer but also by seeking out a broad scope of “intercultural” performance opportunities, rather than confining himself to “standard repertoire.” In Menuhin’s case, however, the downside was that he did not always “get into” the spirit of many of his cross-cultural collaborations, while, at the same time, his “standard repertoire” performances tended to settle into the comfortable category of being merely capable. Ma’s departures from “standard repertoire” are almost always adventurous; but their rewards, at least for serious listeners, tend to be variable.
To a great extent, then, “Azul” can be taken as an opportunity for Ma to come back to the “concert zone,” but with a composition that is very much situated in our immediate present. The title is the Spanish word for “blue;” and its relevance is established in the accompanying booklet by the words of astronaut Charles Walker documenting his first impression of seeing our planet from his viewpoint in outer space. However, the music was inspired by verses from a book-length poem in twelve parts completed by Pablo Neruda in 1945 and entitled Alturas de Macchu Picchu (the heights of Macchu Picchu), the Inca citadel that Neruda had visited in 1943.
The verses that Golijov selected dwell on one of his own favorite themes, the loneliness of an individual in the vastness of the cosmos. This is also the underlying theme of “Tenebrae,” a Golijov composition that has enjoyed several different performances by different chamber groups in my home town of San Francisco. Indeed, the spirit of “Tenebrae” returns in the final movement of “Azul,” while each of the preceding movements explores specific phrases from Neruda and, in the case of the first movement, specific text.
The result is surprisingly effective; and it is definitely to the advantage of all those who take listening seriously that there is now such a fine document of this music in performance. However, since such listeners tend to be interested in acquiring and maintaining a broad repertoire, many will be struck by the motif that pervades this composition from the very first statement by the solo cello. It is also the opening motif in Leoš Janáček’s first string quartet, based on Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Kreutzer Sonata. Presumably, Ma has played the cello part in at least one quartet performance of this piece; but (fortunately) he does not seem to have tried to establish a connection between Janáček and Golijov!
However, if “Azul” elevates the listener to other-worldly heights, the rest of the album brings him/her back to earth with a dull thud. The opening selection is a followup to the concerto for santur (Persian dulcimer) and violin composed jointly by Siamak Aghaei and Colin Jacobsen (one of the two Artistic Directors of The Knights) featured on the ground beneath our feet. Entitled “Ascending Bird,” the piece allows Ma to cut loose with some non-standard cadenza work; and there is no questioning the richness of the work’s overall instrumentation. However, I found it difficult to resist recalling the sex therapist’s response to the exchanges between Frank Drebin and Jane Spencer at the beginning of Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult, “Please, I’m a diabetic.” The sugar-coating on this music has been laid on far thicker than my personal tastes prefer! The same can be said of Jesse Diener-Bennett’s arrangement of the “Song to the Moon” from Antonín Dvořák’s opera Rusalka, in which Ma’s cello work never really rises to the expressiveness that a skilled soprano can bring to this music.
The remainder of the album consists of The Knights playing two decidedly non-standard arrangements. The first of these is Caroline Shaw’s “Leo” movement from Karlheinz Stockhausen’s zodiac-inspired Tierkreis, originally composed for music boxes. This music is often held up as the prime example of a Stockhausen composition that does not sound like Stockhausen, and it is unclear that Shaw has done anything to establish either an alternative or an enlightening point of view.
The album then concludes with a suite of movements from Run Rabbit Run, an album that took the tracks from Sufjan Stevens’ Enjoy Your Rabbit and rearranged them for string ensemble. Five of those arrangements were created by Michael Atkinson, who plays horn for The Knights; and four of them are included in this suite. This is definitely “fun music;” but, with due respect to John Updike, who wrote Rabbit, Run and its four sequels, the whole thing sounds a bit too much like “Kronos Redux” for a larger ensemble.