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Star-filled Knights close set for Ravinia finale

The Knights

The Knights

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YO-YO MA & THE KNIGHTS

♦ 8 p.m. Sept. 7

♦ Pavilion

♦ Tickets: $75 reserved, $15 lawn

ITZHAK PERLMAN & THE KNIGHTS

♦ 7:30 p.m. Sept. 8

♦ Pavilion

♦ Tickets: $75 reserved, $15 lawn

DAWN UPSHAW & THE KNIGHTS

♦ 7 p.m. Sept. 9

♦ Martin Theatre

♦ Tickets: $75 reserved, $15 lawn

♦ All shows, Ravinia Festival, Lake-Cook and Green Bay Roads, Highland Park

♦ (847) 266-5100;
ravinia.org

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The Ravinia Festival will end its summer season with an unusually big classical bang — a series of concerts Sept. 7-9 featuring cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Itzhak Perlman and soprano Dawn Upshaw, all with a hip New York chamber orchestra known as The Knights.

Though he is delighted the timing worked out this way, the festival’s president and chief executive officer, Welz Kauffman, is quick to point out that the triple-header happened more through a fluke in timing than careful calculation.

“Who would have guessed that these three people would be available right when I had the orchestra available?” he said. “It’s kind of a serendipitous thing that I thought I must take advantage of.”

Fluke or not, Upshaw couldn’t be happier with how things turned out. The internationally known singer has performed with the other two superstar soloists on gala evenings, but it so happens that she has never joined them in a three-night run of concerts like this.

“It’s definitely giving me a thrill,” she said.

If the soloists are all blue-chip names in the classical-music world, The Knights are still building wider recognition.

Composed of musicians who play in a range of other orchestras and ensembles, including Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, the loose-knit ensemble generally performs 40-45 concerts a year, usually in bursts of activity centered on a few tours.

The mostly thirtysomething group, which dates its formal establishment to around 2000, emerged from informal chamber-music readings at the home of two brothers — violinist Colin Jacobsen and cellist Eric Jacobsen, who serve as its co-artistic directors.

The Knights are known for their adventurous, wide-ranging repertory as well as an inquisitive, fresh style of playing that derives in part from the diverse backgrounds of their members and their unconventional, democratic approach to music-making.

“It seems like this group has a way of pulling in like-minded people or maybe totally different-minded people who have the same spirit of wanting to explore in a similar way,” Eric, 30, said.

Though he conducts some of the ensemble’s selections, rehearsals are always free-flowing with everyone allowed a voice in interpretative decisions.

“The floor is open,” Colin, 34, said. “People are welcome to make comments. It’s a participatory process of rehearsing the music.”

Ravinia’s Kauffman describes the orchestra as “a malleable, flexible, communal group of top-flight musicians who are just electric on stage both visually and audibly.”

He first invited the group to perform at the festival three years ago, and it has returned each year since. But this summer’s trio of concerts — with their high-profile soloists — represents a major jump in visibility.

“We’re guests,” said Upshaw said of Ma, Perlman and her, “but the audience will definitely feel that the spotlight in this series is on The Knights.”

The soprano has performed with the ensemble on several previous occasions, including a short concert tour in Europe. This time, they are teaming up for a mostly French program that includes Igor Stravinksy’s “Three Japanese Lyrics” and Maurice Ravel’s “Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé” and “Chansons madécasses.”

In addition, Upshaw, who is always up for something new, will perform three just-completed songs, all either written or arranged by members of the The Knights. These include an original work by singer-songwriter Christina Courtin and Michael Atkinson’s reworking of Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” based on a French version sung by Josephine Baker.

It might not have been exactly planned this way, but the Ravinia Festival is lowering the curtain on its 2012 season with a true grand finale — three unquestionable members of classical music’s royalty and The Knights.

Kyle MacMillan is a local free-lance writer.



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