The Harlem Quartet debuted in 2006 with four First Place Laureates of the Sphinx Competition: violinists Ilmar Gavilan and Melissa White, violist Juan-Miguel Hernandez, and cellist Desmond Neysmith. Their mission jointly and individually is "to advance diversity in classical music while engaging young and new audiences through the discovery and presentation of varied repertoire highlighting works by minority composers." Read through their bios and you will be impressed by their high-quality training and preparation for this task and you are likely to feel, as I did, that the future of classical music is headed toward great heights. The future will be better than the past if artists like this are allowed to flourish.
For their first visit to the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild's Masters Series audience they began with Haydn, spiced up the program with some Spanish culture and some class from Harlem itself thanks to the Duke. In the second half they gave us Shostakovich's soul-baring Eighth String Quartet and excerpts from Wynton Marsalis' String Quartet No. 1. They were also around the community greeting folks and performing at other locations,* carrying out their mission.
By the time Haydn wrote the six Opus 76 string quartets, dedication to Count Joseph Erdöty (1796-97), he had developed and mastered the classical sonata form and set to work in tonal and formal experiments to expand it even further. In the first movement of the String Quartet in G Major, Op. 76, No. 1, Haydn moves in and out of G minor, unusual for a G major piece. The second movement is hymn-like music that has been compared to the slow movement of the Symphony No. 99. The minuet is marked "presto," giving it an amusing "scherzo" feel. The fourth movement, like the first, stays in the minor much of the time but in the coda ends in a bright G major.
These quartets are a technical challenge and a delight for the professional musician and the Harlem Quartet made sure not to keep that secret to themselves. Their performance projected all the charm, inventiveness and joy of this great music.
Joaquin Turina was the youngest of a sort of early 20th century "Big Four" of Spanish composers including Albéniz, Falla, and Granados. All four studied in Paris and all four fell under the influence of impressionism, but all four also maintained a commitment to the national flavor of the music they created. Turina's "La oración del torero" is a good example. The flavor is thoroughly Spanish while the writing is clearly impressionistic. It was written in 1925 for lute quartet, then set for string quartet and later, for string orchestra. This prayer for a toreador contains fire and passion, romance and drama, ending with quiet stoicism befitting the courage of the bull fighter. The Harlem Quartet got it all.
Next on the program came some jazz for string quartet that took us on a very different journey, closer to home, to lower eastside New York. Duke Ellington's signature tune "Take the A Train" (actually written by Billy Strayhorn) was played in a refined jazz arrangement with each player taking a solo riff. It was a very fitting tribute to Ellington and Strayhorn and it worked very nicely in Fletcher Opera Theater as well. William Henry Curry's talk before the concert added insights and understanding of the collaboration between these two great musicians.
After intermission the Harlem Quartet returned to the classical idiom with Dimitri Shostakovich's intensely personal String Quartet No. 8, Op. 110. It was written in just three days during a period of trying times and traumatic events. He had just been diagnosed with myelitis and had just joined (under duress) the Communist Party. His friend Lev Lebedinsky believed that Shostakovich approached the piece as his epitaph and intended to commit suicide. It is full of references to earlier works and makes extensive use of the DSCH motif which was his musical signature. It is cast in five movements, played without pause, with the first and last two movements marked Largo. The fourth movement makes striking use of a three-chord motif representing knocks on the door that are ominous and terrifying in nature. The quartet ends with almost unbearable sadness and resignation. It was performed with conviction and passion by the Harlem ensemble and was an experience of technical and artistic magnificence that is to be greatly treasured.
The program closed with something completely different. Four selections from the String Quartet No. 1 (1995) by the remarkable and versatile contemporary musician Wynton Marsalis were a joyful romp through his visions of New Orleans (pre-Katrina). Through a combination of his knowledge of jazz and classical composition and the wide potential of string instruments he took us to a house of ill repute ("Rampart St. Row House Rag"), on a journey to the Delta ("Mating Calls and Delta Rhythms"), to the docks to overhear conversations between the deckhands of the ships that ply the Gulf from New Orleans to Havana and back ("Creole Contradanzas"), and finally on a train ride to hell ("Hellbound Highball") that took the musicians off stage with the wheels of the music still churning. All of this was spiced with musical onomatopoeia such as cat whistles, bird calls, and all sorts of train effects — whistles, clacking wheels, bells, screeching brakes, and even a Doppler effect. It was great fun for both musicians and audience.
For an encore, the Harlem four played a piece by the first violinist's father, Cuban composer Guido Lopez-Gavilan, written as a birthday gift for him when he turned 9. Arranged now for string quartet, "My Little Conga" makes extensive percussive use of the sounding board of the violin producing intriguing rhythmic patterns offset by melodic pulse from the strings.
It occurred to me leaving the theatre that the Harlem Quartet had treated us to quite a journey from elegant and sublime to bawdy and fun — and it was all good music. We wish them God speed on their mission and look forward to their return to the Triangle.
Note: The Harlem Quartet is well-represented on YouTube. For "Hellbound Highball," see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DFVBtVMUNQ4, and for "My Little Conga," see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yGUKZzSKtxw&feature=related.
*Outreach programs during the three-day mini-residency included a concert before a wildly enthusiastic, capacity audience at Davie Street Presbyterian Church, a presentation for the Community Music School, a reception at John Montgomery Violins, Inc. (at which Mayor Charles Meeker presented the quartet with a "tree to the city"), and a masterclass at Meredith College for four outstanding area youth chamber ensembles.