The Grammy-winning Harlem Quartet visited the Chamber Music Society of Palm Beach at the Rosarian Academy Monday night, performing a mash-up concert of jazz standards bookended by two classical quartets.
The quartet — violist Jaime Amador, violinist Ilmar Gavilan, violinist Melissa White and cellist Felix Umansky — opened the concert with Claude Debussy’s Quartet in G minor, Op. 10. From the beginning, they played with amazing balance and a dark, almost muted sound, which worked well in the faded watercolors of Debussy’s music. Their sound was never top-heavy, where many quartets are dominated by the first violin. The second movement started with some pizzicato plucking over a viola melody. It was always clean but not at the cost of style or energy.
The third movement had a lullaby quality to it, trading solos between the second violin and the viola. As with the first movement, the quartet played with a muted sound, and very little vibrato, which added richness to their sound. The fourth movement opened with the group accelerating together, and featured a melody accompanied by a buzzing cello tremolo and a colorful viola trill.
After Debussy was Antonio Carlo Jobim’s famed The Girl from Ipanema, one of the most well-known jazz standards of all time. In a different turn than Debussy, the quartet jammed and improvised over this classic tune. There are several string quartets around who dabble in jazz tunes, but none groove the way the Harlem Quartet does. These experiments are frequently stiff and artificial, but this quartet locked into their rhythms with ease.
Next was Dizzy Gillespie’s A Night in Tunisia, another familiar tune. Within another solid groove, each member of the quartet took turns improvising compelling, collaborative solos. This, too, is unusual for string quartets attempting this crossover. Most have one or two members of the quartet daring enough to improvise, and even then, the solos are isolated from the rest of the group, not reacting to anything. Here, each member’s solo responded to the others, often with smiles of recognition between them. Throughout, the players showed a command of their instruments and their style.
The last piece on the concert was Franz Schubert’s Quartet No. 13, D. 804. Although it was the oldest piece on the concert, the first movement had a dark, almost modern quality to it, especially in the second violin. Again, the quartet’s sound was balanced, and never overly dramatic. In the second movement, the quartet ended several phrases with a dominant chord, the musical equivalent of a question mark, with a solid, resonant tone that sounded like it was made out of gorgeous marble.
The concert ended with another jazz venture into Billy Strayhorn’s Take the A Train, where these players once more showed their mastery of the string quartet crossover.