There used to be a strange disconnect between the Freer Gallery -- one of the nation's superb Asian art museums -- and its excellent chamber music series, which went decidedly in the more Western, Germanic tradition. In recent years, the organizers have smartly brought the performances more in line with the gallery's central mission, presenting ensembles and programs that tie East and West together. The wonderful concert of the Shanghai Quartet at the gallery on Wednesday evening showed the benefits of this thoughtful approach.
The Shanghai Quartet gave an evocative performance of Yi-Wen Jiang's "ChinaSong," a set of Chinese folk song arrangements. The composer, with a clear knack for color and part-writing, treats ancient Chinese songs with light-handed deftness, focusing more on bringing out the mystery and melancholy of the melodies than imposing a rigid structure. In the ensemble's hands, each selection came off as a tender effusion. There were some beautiful solo flights as well as singing trills that conjured up bountiful images of nature.
The Shanghai's performance of Bela Bartok's Quartet No. 1, Op. 7, was as brooding and mysterious as the Jiang was sweet and lighthearted. This vigorous and nimble account constantly shifted mood and direction, brimming with strong attacks and bold ensemble.
The Shanghai distilled the Asian-inspired sounds from Ravel's Quartet in F. This ability to highlight these underlying "exotic" influences was nothing artificial, but seemed more like a natural part of an ensemble of such virtuosity and style.
-- Daniel Ginsberg
It was one of those price-of-admission moments when a rock star transforms from an iconic media abstraction into a living, breathing, sweating human being. As if on a whim, Julian Casablancas, the lanky frontman of the Strokes, hopped off the stage and into the aisles of Constitution Hall Wednesday, doling out hugs and high-fives to giddy fans.
His band mates, often accused of looking too stoic for their own good, zipped into their closing number, "Reptilia," while Casablancas clawed through the crowd toward the center of the room, climbing from seat back to seat back, tugging on a seemingly infinite supply of microphone cable. "Please don't slow me down if I'm going too fast," he howled, surrounded by a swarm of pumping fists and flashing camera phones. To quote the late Chris Farley: "That was awesome."
Granted, it took a while for the band's set to reach such heights. The performance was heavy with cuts from the new album, "First Impressions of Earth" -- a collection of tunes that aren't nearly as sharp (or as fun) as the quintet's earlier material. The band managed, however, to breathe some fire into them onstage, no thanks to the notoriously dreadful acoustics of Constitution Hall. Ripping through "Heart in a Cage," Casablancas's already moody bellow was muddled into an incomprehensible murk.
"Ze-huuhhhh-eeees-innus-ayyy," he seemed to sing into the cavernous void. (Translation: "The heart beats in its cage.")
His band battled back, delivering airtight renditions of their older, snappier songs, including "Take It or Leave It" and "Hard to Explain." It didn't matter if the crowd could hear what Casablancas was singing during these numbers. They already knew every word.
-- Chris Richards