Last Stand Quartet and friends present Shakespeare at the Kennedy Center

December 31, 2013

Shakespeare has enjoyed a rich musical afterlife, yet rarely do the countless works inspired by the Bard enrich our understanding of the plays themselves.

On Monday evening at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, the Last Stand Quartet and actors Andre Braugher, Rob Clare and Reiko Aylesworth presented a program of Shakespeare in words and music that largely bore out this truism. The evening offered moments of dramatic brilliance, yet only intermittently did words and music come together to deepen our sense of Shakespeare’s art.

Braugher, in a virtuoso turn, roared and whispered, meditated and lamented his way through selections from 13 Shakespearean roles. At times, Braugher’s readings seemed more like works in progress than finished interpretations, relying more on the actor’s rich baritone and preternatural verbal intelligence than on individually etched characterizations. Yet Braugher was never less than spellbinding, reaching a high point in his acerbic Benedick, chillingly nihilistic Macbeth and, especially, his tortured and tormented Othello. Clare (who also directed) and Aylesworth contributed sensitive work in support.

The quartet — featuring violinists Joel Fuller and Alexandra Osborne, violist Mahoko Eguchi and cellist Rachel Young, all from the National Symphony Orchestra — played a grab bag of Shakespeare-inspired selections from Purcell to Vaughan Williams with consistent refinement and interpretive restraint. Yet the music was rarely in true dialogue with the drama, mostly serving as tastefully elegant interludes between scenes. Lamentably, the most rhetorically adventurous piece, Ned Rorem’s “After Reading Shakespeare” suite for solo cello, was reduced to mere underscoring.

Only once did the evening fulfill its true promise. After the emotional wreckage of the murder scene from “Othello” — played to devastating effect by Braugher and Aylesworth – came the brooding slow movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in F major, Op. 18, No. 1, which itself was inspired by the tomb scene from “Romeo and Juliet.” Beethoven’s searching lines formed the perfect emotional coda to the tragic climax of “Othello,” providing a palpable sense of catharsis. Pity and fear, having been aroused, were purged away by sublime melody.

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Chin is a freelance writer.

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