Turtle Island Quartet & the Assad Brothers
Saturday, October 25, 2008 at 04:34PM
Stephen Brookes

 By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • October 20, 2008


he title of Saturday night's program at the George Mason Center for the Arts was "String Theory," but it wasn't a lecture for the astrophysicist set. The theory in question was whether classical musicians can throw off their chains and play anything from jazz to world music, and there to test the case were two of the most formidable crossover groups on the planet -- the Turtle Island Quartet (which just won a Grammy for its take on the music of John Coltrane) and the brilliant guitar duo of Sergio and Odair Assad, whose repertoire ranges from Couperin to Gershwin to Antonio Carlos Jobim.

It was a mighty teaming, and in a virtuosic program that started with bop and ended in New Age pastiche (with stops along the way for '70s fusion, 20th-century classical and Argentine tango), there were moments of real and striking beauty. In particular, the Assad brothers (so gifted they could make Bulgarian drinking songs sound good) turned in achingly nuanced accounts of Isaac Albéniz's "Cordoba" and their own highly personal "Tahhiyya Li Ossoulina."

But for all that, it was a rather tame evening. It's not easy to combine the intellectual precision of the classical world with the spontaneity and sensuality of jazz and pop, and the Turtles' take on tunes such as Coltrane's "Moment's Notice" often sounded like pale, bloodless imitations of the real thing. There was more electricity onstage when the Assads joined the quartet for Latin American works including Sergio Assad's "Djembe" and Astor Piazzolla's "Verano Porteno" -- intricate, multi-layered music brought off with elegant grace -- but the evening overall had the feel of an academic exercise: well-played and thoughtful, but without much fire at its core.

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