The Harlem Quartet

Ilmar Gavilán, Melissa White, Felix Umansky, and Jaime Amador. (Gabriel López Albarrán / The Weekly Journal)

The Harlem Quartet graced the stage of the Symphony Hall of the Luis A. Ferré Fine Arts Center in Santurce last Sunday, in a spellbinding concert full of passion and devotion to the fourth art.

To celebrate the fifth concert of its 2018-2019 season, Pro Arte Musical, Puerto Rico’s oldest musical society, invited the distinguished musical group. Its members are violinists and original founders Ilmar Gavilán and Melissa White, violist Jaime Amador, and cellist Felix Umansky.

After a heartfelt introduction, The Harlem Quartet took the stage and proceeded to play their first arrangement—a rendition of ‘My Funny Valentine,’ composed by Richard Rodgers, as arranged by Calvin Custer.

This piece felt slightly morose at its earliest notes, and then ultimately assumes a more erratic flow—akin to a descent into madness. 

The second arrangement, Claude Debussy’s ‘String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10,’ filled the entire room with an air of whimsy. At this point, a small choir of oohs and ahs could be heard among the lower seating area.

In striking contrast to the first two compositions, the third piece was ‘A Night in Tunisia,’ by African-American icon John Birks “Gizzy” Gillespie, as arranged by Dave Glenn.

The shock among the audience was almost tangible: how can four musicians evoke the same rhythm and soul as a full-on jazz orchestra? Naturally, the arrangement was met with a standing ovation.

After a brief interlude, the ensemble resumed the stage, this time with Anton Weber’s ‘Langsamer Satz,’ but not before Amador dedicated the piece to fellow Puerto Rican artist Eva de la O, who passed away the evening prior.

The last arrangement on the program was Beethoven's 'Quartet No. 11 in F Minor, op.95 Serioso.' The time-stopping performance elicited yet another standing ovation, with the enchanted audience clamoring for more.

The evening ended with an encore: a breathtaking rendition of ‘Take the A Train,’ a jazz composition by Billy Strayhorn that was the signature tune of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Being one of the first jazz pieces in The Harlem Quartet’s repertoire, the song brought a string of emotions both in the artists and the audience.

A Style of Its Own

To attract younger generations and deviate from monotony, The Harlem Quartet plays short and diverse pieces—from romanticism to Latin jazz. The group’s unique style and meticulous attention to detail have earned it critical acclaim.

Renowned music critic Julian Haylock described The Harlem Quartet as “a formidable ensemble whose members play highly demanding scores with infectious vitality, breezy confidence, and (most importantly), affectionate warmth.”

In 2009, the quartet was hosted by then-President Barack Obama in the White House. That same year, they made their European debut and proceeded to act as faculty members of Belgium’s Musica Mundi International Chamber Music Course & Festival.

Since then, The Harlem Quartet has captivated audiences in 47 states, as well as the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Panama, Canada, Venezuela, and South Africa.

When they aren’t touring, they are educating.

Every last week of July the group holds a workshop, called Music Mountain. In it, they focus on chamber music and improvisation, with emphasis on individual technique classes.

“Individual technique classes are extremely important because without individual technique we can’t have an ensemble. A good ensemble is the sum of excellent individual musicians,” Gavilán said.

‘Representation is Important’

In an exclusive with THE WEEKLY JOURNAL, Gavilán, one of The Harlem Quartet’s founding members, discussed the role of minorities in classical music.

The Cuban violinist and educator stated that black and Latin American children generally shy away from this sector of the music industry because it is perceived as a predominantly white space.

Since its conception in 2006, The Harlem Quartet has promoted diversity in music, both in repertoires and in human talent.

“Our mission is to bring classical music to children who do not feel identified with that genre, because they nearly always see musicians who do not look like them, so they perceive it as a foreign concept that is apart from their culture. Our mission is to erase that myth... it’s to bring music to sectors that don’t feel represented,” he affirmed.

Emotional Tribute to Eva De La O

A teary-eyed Myrna Rivera, president of Pro Arte Musical, preceded the introduction with an emotive homage to Puerto Rican soprano Eva de la O, who passed away on May 4 after a lengthy battle with cancer. De La O was the first Puerto Rican lyric singer to enthrall an audience in the coveted Teatro alla Scala in Milan.

Graduated from the distinguished and highly sought Juilliard School, the world-renowned soprano acclaimed praise for her work in the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra.

In 1980 she founded Música de Cámara, a nonprofit organization that served as a platform for Puerto Rican and Latin American musicians in New York City. With her support, these artists proceeded to perform in prestigious theaters, such as the Alice Tully Hall, the Carnegie Hall, the St. Patrick Cathedral, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In her adulation, Rivera, who was a close friend of De La O, declared: “Eva’s passing leaves a gap that will be difficult to fill, but it also leaves us with an enormous legacy that will serve us as a guide and light in defense and promotion of our music.”

“Eva was not only a special human being, but also a committed patroness and visionary,” she added.

The Great Hall of the Terence Cardinal Cook Center in New York will hold a concert on May 17 at 7 p.m., to celebrate De La O’s life and works. To honor the late Puerto Rican artist and her devotion to cultural enrichment, Pro Arte Musical and The Harlem Quartet dedicated the concert to her memory.

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