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The Knights bring classical fusion to the IU Auditorium

The Knights by Shervin Lainez 1 (1)

 A night filled with musical collaboration took place Nov. 15 at the IU Auditorium. Clarinetist and composer Kinan Azmeh, mandolin expert Avi Avital and Brooklyn orchestra the Knights came together to share their sound on stage. Courtesy Photo Buy Photos

In the aisles of the IU Auditorium, six members of the Knights took their places. From their instruments came a haunting drone that gave way to a program spanning across centuries and continents, typical of the Grammy-nominated group.

Though untraditional in practice, the Knights were simply adhering to their core mission: to bring music directly to the people and challenge the rigidity commonly associated with classical orchestral music .

Guest artists for the orchestra's performance Wednesday night included the Israeli-born, Grammy-nominated Avi Avital on mandolin and Syrian clarinetist and composer Kinan Azmeh. 

“Guest” could perhaps be the wrong word, as both soloists have been active collaborators with the group since its 2000 inception in New York City, said artistic director and founding violinist Colin Jacobsen.

The evening began with free-form improvisation between Azmeh and Avital that laid the harmonic groundwork for Henry Purcell’s “Fantasia.” As the six instrumentalists stepped onstage from within the auditorium, the Knights segued from the world of 17th-Century England into living composer Giovanni Sollima’s Mediterranean-inspired “La Camara Bianaca”. 

Then, after a quick break, cellist Caitlin Sullivan introduced a jiving beat reminiscent of Romanian gypsy tunes in Osvaldo Golijov’s “Lullaby and Doina.” As the Knights clapped and tapped on their instruments, several audience members evidently found it hard to sit still.

“(Golijov)…He’s a musical omnivore of sorts, and he represents the music of the Romanian Gypsies among others," Jacobsen said. 

Jacobsen, who spent two summers at IU studying with renowned violinist Josef Gingold, said the Knights hope to normalize an interactive experience without drawing attention to individual players in the process.

Fellow founding member Guillaume Pirard agreed.

"I just want to make people smile," Pirard said. "I thought to myself, 'when I go to a nightclub, why is it that I have an exhilarating experience there?' Why can't I have that with classical music?"

While the Knights’ roots lie in classical music, and all members are conservatory-trained and began their professional careers as strictly classical musicians, they frequently venture into dimensions of jazz, klezmer and Middle Eastern music in concert. 

Pirard said the ensemble came into fruition organically, as a result of late-night experimentation between members, all of whom were studying at the Juilliard School of Music at the time. 

"I was friends with Colin and Eric (Jacobsen), and they lived two blocks from Juilliard," Pirad said. "So after school, on weekends, we'd play chamber music together. You know, play and party."

In the 17 years since the Knights' inception, the group has accumulated several accolades, including but not limited to, collaborations with Dawn Upshaw and Yo-Yo Ma, performances at Carnegie Hall and a new album release this year, "Azul".

The 8 p.m. concert marked the end of the group’s U.S. tour with Azmeh and Avital. In the last week alone, the Knights have hit four states, according to their website, including California, Indiana, Michigan and New York. 

Avital capped off the first half of the program with his own take on Johann Sebastian Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto, while the second half of the concert paid homage to Romantic classics of Franz Schubert and Felix Mendelssohn. 

After the concert, several audience members reflected on their experiences outside of the auditorium.

“They are so in tune with each other, it’s almost physically shocking,” Bloomington resident Annika Johnson said.

“I can't think of another orchestra that has so much fun in their concerts as the Knights.” 

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