Classical Concert Review: The Harlem Quartet at the Shalin Liu Performance Center

By Steve Provizer

Hey, any string quartet that has performed and recorded with Chick Corea (in the album Hot House) is ok by me.

The members of the Harlem Quartet: Ilmar Gavilan, violin; Melissa White, violin; Felix Umansky, cello; Jaime Amador, viola. Photo: Steve Provizer.

The Harlem Quartet was founded in 2006 as part of an effort by the Sphinx Organization to diversify audiences and participants in the arts. So it is no surprise that for its concert on January 29 at the Shalin Liu in Rockport the group assembled a program outside the normal classical repertoire, including pieces by under-represented composers. The pre-show discussion with two members of the string quartet also fell well within the group’s admirable mission of education and outreach. This, combined with virtuosic playing, made for a varied, edifying, and enjoyable concert.

The first piece on the program was William Bolcom’s “Three Rags for String Quartet,” originally written for piano and adapted by the composer for string quartet. If you are not familiar with Bolcom, he spearheaded an effort in the ’60’s to make ragtime composition relevant to modern ears. His Graceful Ghost Rag sparked widespread interest when it was written in 1970. All three rags were very entertaining, although I found Poltergeist Rag the most interesting. It combined the resources of “modern” composition with rag form and structure, deftly combining whimsy and chromaticism. In all three rags, moods changed on a dime, with traditional ragtime cadences sliding into intriguing harmonic byways. Incineratorag accented the cakewalk undertones of ragtime composition; of all three rags, it had the most dynamics built in. I thought I might miss the forceful left hand of a pianist because the cello — even in its lowest register — is not as powerful as the bass end of a piano. But there was so much else going on musically it was no problem at all.

Next on the lineup was “Cuarteto En Guaguanco,” written by the Cuban Guido Lopez-Gavilan, who happens to be the father of the quartet’s first violinist, Ilmar Gavilan. Guaguanco is a Cuban dance form which has a very similar clave (beat) to salsa. Members of the quartet helpfully demonstrated the difference before they played the piece. I will say, though, that to these ears there seemed to be a mixing of the two beats: this was not solely the guaguanco. Lopez-Gavilan mobilizes a lot of resources here — ostinatos in the cello, rapid alterations of the lead voice between instruments, fugal pizzicatos, pleasant modulations, and light rhythmic finger-knocking on the instruments. The performances were excellent, as they were throughout the afternoon. The composition was 90% effective for me; my only reservation is there was not enough material at the piece’s core to support the accumulation of quicksilver changes.

Next up was “A Night in Tunisia,” the Dizzy Gillespie jazz standard, arranged for the group by Dave Glenn. Violinist Gavilan preceded the performance by arguing that there was “an impulse to improvisation” in classical music and that the great composers were great improvisers. In that spirit, every member of the group took a solo. When jazz musicians play classical repertoire, which is not that uncommon, I imagine that a classical musician might critique that performance more harshly than me. On the other hand, coming from a jazz background I tend to judge a classical player’s jazz improvisations more harshly. That being said, the members of this quartet aren’t strangers to the jazz approach and I thought that each member acquitted him or herself well. Their performances were certainly very well received by the audience.

The final piece, apart from a short encore, was the String Quartet in E-Flat Major by Fanny Mendelssohn. Fanny was Felix’s sister and, despite her talent, was discouraged — in no uncertain terms — from pursuing a career in music. It was only one year before her death at age 41 that she dared to publish a handful of lieder. 450 of her compositions remained unpublished — until the quality of her work began to be acknowledged at the end of the 20th century.

This string quartet, the only one Mendelssohn wrote, is in four movements: Adagio ma non troppo, Allegretto, Romanze, and Allegro Molto Vivace. Overall the piece takes on a minor coloring, emphasizing slower tempos, although any movements marked Allegretto and Allegro Molto Vivace might have been taken at a faster clip than the Harlem Quartet did in this performance. The composition was clearly influenced by Beethoven and falls squarely in Romantic era parameters. I felt that it never fell below the level of quality that one hears in the work of other composers of that era, such as Schubert or brother Felix. One aspect that did surprise me: the endings of the movements. The Romanze movement had a conclusion typical of the genre, but the other three movements did not. They were not “prepared” with the usual cadences and caught me off guard. I note this without speculating what that observation “means,” if anything.

The quartet responded to a strong ovation from the audience by returning for an encore. They performed the first jazz piece they’d put in their repertoire- “Take the A Train.” Like “A Night in Tunisia,” it was a nice arrangement, with each member taking an effective improvised solo.

Other string quartets, like Kronos and Turtle Island have increasingly programmed jazz and female composers in their concerts. This broadening of programming is a positive trend given its potential to engage a more diverse audience. The Harlem Quartet may not be as well-known as some others, but it is a quality group, offering gifted and well-matched musicians. And hey, any string quartet that has performed and recorded with Chick Corea (in the album Hot House) is ok by me.

Steve Provizer writes on a range of subjects, most often the arts. He is a musician and blogs about jazz here.

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