Kirsten Jermé  

(Re)Envisioning the Orchestra: An Interview with Eric Jacobsen, Conductor and Founding Cellist of The Knights

Kirsten Jermé
April 20, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

The Knights are not your typical orchestra. A hip young collective of New York City musicians, The Knights challenge the boundaries of convention through their innovative structure, communal rehearsal process, and creative programming. Collaborating with artists ranging from Dawn Upshaw and Gil Shaham to singer-songwriter Christina Courtin and fiddler Mark O'Connor to Middle Eastern musicians, The Knights have appeared at venues as diverse as Carnegie Hall, Central Park, Le Poisson Rouge, the Dresden Musikfestspiele, and the National Gallery in Dublin, and will soon debut at Ravinia and at the Caramoor Festival with Yo-Yo Ma. The Knights have recorded two albums for SONY Classical, the second of which, New Worlds, was just released in the U.S. (New Worlds is available by clicking here).

I had the pleasure of speaking with the charismatic young conductor and cellist of The Knights, Eric Jacobsen, who formed the orchestra with his brother, violinist Colin Jacobsen. Eric describes how the orchestra gradually emerged from a group of friends reading chamber music into a critically-acclaimed ensemble that embraces the spirit of collectivity and collaboration and expands the possibilities of contemporary orchestral performance. For more information about Eric Jacobsen and The Knights, please visit and
- Kirsten Jermé

- Ramon Ricker

Eric Jacobsen Eric Jacobsen (Click to enlarge)

Q: Could you please begin by telling me about your musical background? Did you have any particularly strong musical influences or mentors as a young cellist?

I was very fortunate to have two musical parents – my father was a violinist with the Metropolitan Opera and my mother was a flutist. My parents’ friends would come over and read chamber music every couple of months, so music-making was an informal and familiar part of life. It was also influential looking up to my older brother Colin, who is a great violinist.
I had three great teachers before college. Laura Epstein and Ardyth Alton gave me a love and respect for the instrument. When I was 14 I began studying with Joe Elworthy. The steps that he taught me for careful study and practice more-or-less made it possible for me to become a cellist. Then, my teacher at Juilliard, Harvey Shapiro, taught me almost every day for four years (yes, that’s easily over 1000 lessons)! I was lucky to have a very special bond with Mr. Shapiro. Two major influences in the past few years, though I don’t play for them often, are Anner Bylsma and Yo-Yo Ma. I learn so much working with Yo-Yo in just an hour's time sitting on stage next to him in the Silk Road Ensemble. Anner inspires questioning and hope and just plays the hell out of the cello!

Q: What was the inspiration for the formation of The Knights? When and how did it come about as a formal ensemble?

The first time the name “The Knights” was ever used, I was a junior in high school. I was performing Haydn’s D major Cello Concerto and wanted a group of friends to perform with me. Around that time, almost every Saturday, my brother and I would invite friends over to our house and we would read chamber music for hours. About 35 people would come regularly just to play music. So when I was preparing for this recital and needed a name for the ensemble, I came up with “The Knights of the Many-Sided Table,” inspired by some King Arthur book I was reading. It was a joke – there was no real idea behind it at the time.

A couple years after that, my brother and I did another chamber orchestra concert that we really rehearsed for, and a lot of the same people were involved. Our distinct rehearsal process started to take shape and therefore the sound of the orchestra began to emerge. The history of friends reading chamber music as a pastime and the history of these musicians forming an orchestra were synonymous. About five years ago we decided this was something we really wanted to continue – it brought us a revitalized energy, which we sought to convey to the audience through our commitment to the music. The group began to champion music, to rehearse as much as possible in order to give the music what it deserves. The group was beginning to stand for a quest of sorts, always searching out, seeking to bring new in and put new out. So the name – now simply “The Knights” – really means something bold and true to the cause.

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