The Knights

Middle C: the first note a student learns on the piano. The first note one hears, the first note one learns to identify. Geographically, sonically, visually. Home. It’s an important note, to say the least. It was the first note heard in a concert by The Knights that took place at 4 pm on Sunday in Rackham Auditorium, and the pitch that was sustained through the first piece, “Suite Upon One Note.” The suite was made up of three very different pieces: “Improvisation Upon One Note”, by Kinan Azmeh and Avi Avital, “Fantasia Upon One Note”, by Henry Purcell, and an excerpt from “La Camera Bianca” by Giovanni Sollima Viaggo. Three very different works from three different cultures, time periods, and backgrounds, all connected by a shared note and presented as one.
This idea of unity through a common language was present through the entirety of the concert. Joining the Brooklyn-based ensemble were two virtuoso musicians: Israeli mandolin player Avi Avital and the Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh. Their influence was felt through the concert, as the program blended music from the classical tradition, Middle Eastern cultures, and jazz. On the Knights website, the organization notes that “We are serious about having fun. We thrive on camaraderie and friendship. We cultivate a collaborative environment that honors a multiplicity of voices.”
In today’s political climate, a concert presenting two accomplished, well-known musicians and music from the Middle East inherently feels like a statement. Although it was never addressed by the Knights, the statement that seemed to be made with the concert was that their differences as musicians pulled them together even more. Rarely is Azmeh’s “Suite for Improvisers and Orchestra,” based off of sounds that remind him of his hometown in Syria, heard on the same program as Bach and Schubert. This diversity in work is important: in playing works by Bach and Schubert, the Knights paid tribute to a shared classical musical background. Presenting works by Avital and Azmeh that were partly based in improvisation recognized and celebrated the individuality and virtuosity of the music and character of each other’s backgrounds and cultures.
These ideas are all based in the founding values of the Knights: they say that they are “musicians…who come from a deeply rooted tradition but are eager to look beyond those roots and embrace new means of expression.” Ensembles like the Knights and concerts like Sunday’s are increasingly important today. They encourage this idea of a shared “Middle C” in the audience; a shared sense of home and humanity present in each person. These musicians are not only virtuosic in musical ability, but in creating a community within themselves and the audience that can only be described as warm, inviting, and inclusive: three ideals to strive for in today’s world.

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