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Harlem Quartet nails Mozart, Beethoven, Webern, Gavilan, bossa nova, and Ellington at UC San Diego

Benjamin Franklin once said that wine is the proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. He would surely have added music to that list if he had been at the Harlem Quartet concert on Friday evening in UC San Diego’s Conrad Prebys Concert Hall in a program presented by ArtPower.

Capping a week-long residency of UCSD masterclasses and interactive programs for students in Chula Vista and other area schools, this one-of-a-kind quartet was ready to swing.

The foursome’s approach reflects Duke Ellington’s declaration that there are two kinds of music: good and bad. The Harlem Quartet takes the whole universe of music as their domain.

So Friday night’s concert covered a lot of territory: quartets by Mozart and Beethoven, some lushly textured bossa nova, a rhythmically challenging Afro-Cuban piece, and that small Anton Webern masterpiece, “Langsamer Satz” (Slow Movement) that out-Mahlers Mahler.

Mozart’s B-flat Major String Quartet, K.458, was one of six he gave in appreciation to his sometime teacher Joseph Haydn. Mozart did not give it the nickname it carries, “The Hunt”, but its expansive opening summons us to the outdoors, and the entire work is shot through with sunshine. The Quartet played it with a pillowy amplitude that never sacrificed clarity to its big richly burnished sound. Throughout its four movements — in fact, throughout the entire concert — the Quartet exhibited an uncanny ability to select perfect tempos that allowed the music to breathe while propelling it forward.

Antonio Jobim’s “The Girl from Ipanema” (arranged by the Quartet and Dave Glenn) passed a tune we all think we know through the prism of four individual musical minds, emerging as a textured rainbow on the other side. What might have appeared to be a musical bon-bon snapped into place later when Webern’s “Langsamer Satz” suddenly seemed to be predicting a musical future in which Ipanema was not as far away from Vienna as you might think.

Webern focused on creating a song without a melody. Guido López Gavilán’s “Cuarteto en Guaguancó” (yes, he is the father of Harlem Quartet first violinist Ilmar Gavilán) focused its energy not on a melody but a rhythm. The straightforward five-note ostinato of salsa (illustrated by violist Amador before the piece was played) was displaced by a little syncopation that had every listener moving something — feet, fingers, head — in a pleasant game of find-the-downbeat in this new thing called guaguancó.

Beethoven’s Op. 95 “Serioso” quartet — a rare case of a title bestowed by the composer — seemed to be played by different players. Mozart’s effervescence was replaced by a bracing astringency, and its sunny optimism clouded with tension (I wondered if Beethoven would have called it “Anxiety-ridden” if he were writing it today.) Once again, the tempi were carefully calculated, and the approach-and-retreat of its musical argument was laid out with understated but edged intensity.

Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train” was the single encore (with a hint of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” passed around with a wink): just the right “button” on the last chamber music concert in ArtPower’s 2017-2018 series.

Overton is a freelance writer.


Marcus Overton, The San Diego Union-Tribune
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