Emerson String Quartet
Two years ago, a highlight of the flurry of Dmitri Shostakovich birth-centennial concerts came from the Fortas Series at the Kennedy Center, which presented the estimable Emerson String Quartet. The ensemble, known for the gleaming finish and digital clarity of its playing, gave poignant accounts of the first eight of the Russian composer's 15 quartets. Wednesday evening, in the first of two Terrace Theater concerts over as many evenings, the Emerson picked up where it left off, giving searing yet vivid renditions of Quartets No. 9 through 12.
The performance was remarkable in the way it underscored the continuity and marvelous consistency of voice in the quartets, which rank highly among the 20th century's musical achievements. The inward-looking posture, folk influence and richness of counterpoint emerged as a thread that runs from that first quartet, completed in 1938, to these midlife scores, finished after the death of Stalin in the more tolerant creative climate that resulted. The Emerson, which made landmark recordings of the cycle in 2000, masterfully brought out that singular voice, as well as all the details, gestures and kaleidoscopic moods that give the engaging variety amid this sonic terrain.
While the Quartet No. 9 came off as a far-reaching exploration of darkness, No. 10 was more pastoral, relaxed and shapely. A forward-thrusting and cagey reading of No. 11 had a strong sense of back-and-forth, and the finale of No. 12 was a similar wild ride, intensely built with a relentlessly developed rhythmic figure. Few have written more powerfully for the viola than Shostakovich, and, in several gripping sequences, dark-throated melodies soared above endlessly morphing textures.
-- Daniel Ginsberg
So, a freshly reunited, legendary, all-black, hard-core D.C. band plays to a sold-out crowd of rowdy punk rockers on the night that America elects its first African American president. How could this show be anything but jaw-dropping? When Bad Brains performed Tuesday at the 9:30 club, circumstances had aligned so perfectly in the band's favor that if guitarist Dr. Know merely showed up and strummed an open G chord, that alone would have been enough to send an unruly mob of fans spilling into the streets.
But what the band really needed more than a once-in-a-lifetime gig was somebody to make lead singer H.R. angry enough to perform -- somebody to jump onstage and pull his dreadlocks or give him a cheap kick in the shins. During the early '80s, when H.R. could still get his dander up, he was among the most unhinged punk-rock frontmen alive. But Tuesday night the singer defused the set by appearing positively zonked -- daintily wiggling his fingers in the air and mumbling inaudibly as the rhythm section chugged viciously, not to mention incongrously, away behind him.
To their credit, the other members of Bad Brains still tore it up, delivering precision takes of songs such as "Sailin' On" and "Re-Ignition." But with H.R. exhibiting all of the fury of a Carnival Cruise house band emcee, "Attitude" didn't really live up to its name. All said, when 2012 rolls around, maybe Bad Brains' people should start talking to Ashlee Simpson's people about acquiring that automated-vocal machine.
-- Aaron Leitko