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At Tannery Pond: The Harlem Quartet

Harlem String Quartet
August 4th, Saturday, 8 pm

Ludwig van Beethoven – String Quartet in D major, Opus 18, No. 3
Armando Anthony “Chick” Corea – String Quartet No. 1
Joaquín Turina – L’Oración del Torero
Maurice Ravel – String Quartet in F major

This summer was especially rich in string quartets. All the New England festivals, especially Music Mountain, offered a wealth of music from the legendary groups, like the Tokyo Quartet, who also played for Tannery, and the Emerson Quartet, “mid-career” quartets like the Borromini and the Brentano, and relative newcomers like the Harlem String Quartet. It was a joy to become acquainted with this immensely gifted and musical ensemble, who had their own, entirely personal approach to this demanding art form.

The Harlem is not the only quartet to open their repertoire to crossover music and jazz. The string quartet, the most severely classical of genres, turns out to be surprisingly sympathetic to jazz, if it’s done well. The Quatuor Ébène, another young quartet, played jazz improvisations both at SPAC and at Tanglewood this summer. Still the backbone of this Tannery concert was entirely in the classical mainstream, beginning with a quartet from Beethoven’s Op. 18 and concluding with Ravel’s early masterpiece.

The Harlem Quartet’s way with Beethoven was especially engaging. A standard approach to these early quartets is to play them in rather strict time, as certain older groups and conductors have approached quartets and symphonies of Haydn, Mozart, and early Beethoven. The players keep together by counting first and listening to each other second. The Harlem musicians, by the sound of it, keep together by listening to each other intently and through concerted muscular coordination they have developed by playing jazz and other improvisatory varieties of music together. The result is a flexible, immediate interaction which worked wonders for this early quartet of Beethoven. Their sunny warmth permeated the space between the notes throughout the work, bringing life to the quick movements and human breath to the slow movement.

Another aspect of the Harlem Quartet’s method is the independence of their playing. Each of them remains true to her or his own color, inflection, and pace. Juan Miguel Hernandez, for one, is a violist of impressive musicianship and a powerful temperament. He can just as readily ground the ensemble with steady rhythm and spot-on intonation as go his own way, as if he were letting loose on a jazz riff, and this applies as much to his Beethoven as his Ellington. He produces a robust dark sound from his instrument. Second violin Melissa White plays with an engaging, seemingly relaxed manner, produces a mellifluous tone, and shapes her phrases with elegance. First violinist Ilmar Gavilan is sensitive and responsive; when he has the melody, he sings. Paul Wiancko, the regular cellist, could not appear that night. he was replaced by Ismar Gomes, who seemed entirely at home with the others, playing with perfect coordination within the ensemble, impressive virtuosity, energy, and a handsome tonal range.

Chick Corea’s First String Quartet followed the Beethoven. The Harlem Quartet has been, so to speak, “adopted” by Corea and have played together with him on numerous occasions. Of course they played these four short movements with as much expression, sympathy, and commitment as one could want. The music itself was not uninteresting and was even appealing, but the segments were not really complete enough to be called movements any more than their summation could be called a “string quartet.” These were combined ideas of an overtly serious sort that amounted to no more than sketches, I thought. There was barely any development in the movements or within the themes, leaving quite a gulf between this essay and, say, Webern. However, I know I shouldn’t expect that here, and I did enjoy them, although I found them unsatisfying in equal measure. The Harlem Quartet have invested a great deal of time and energy into their work with Chick Corea. I believe they are on tour together now (October 2012). As long as they don’t get tangled up in Scientology, they should be all right.

Turina’s L’Oración del Torero is a brooding, Romantic piece, rich in texture. Spanish and South American music has become a mainstay of chamber music programs, providing an accessible twentieth-century idiom which has proven popular with audiences. It made for an effective bridge between the Corea and the Ravel. Joaquin Turina began his career as a composer of zarzuelas, but he met with no success. His solution was to go to Paris to study, where he attended the Schola Cantorum, the conservative, even antiquarian foundation of Vincent d’Indy. Falla and Albéniz, however, persuaded him to remain true to his Spanish roots and to seek inspiration in the popular music of his homeland. La oración del torero was wonderful material for the Harlem musicians: it was narrative in structure and atmospheric in color, replete with a rich texture of contrapuntal lines, which responded beautifully to their communally independent music-making.

Ravel wrote his Quartet in F Major when he was twenty-eight and still a student at the Conservatoire. Although it could be considered a work of his youth, it has remained popular and is accepted along with his mature work without justification. However, when he submitted it to the Conservatoire de Paris as well as for the Prix de Rome, it was roundly rejected by both institutions after its premiere on March 5, 1904. Its dedicatee, Gabriel Fauré thought it a total failure. Ravel left the Conservatoire in 1905 in the aftermath of this debacle. Claude Debussy, on the other hand, was captivated by the work and urged Ravel not to change a note of it. The Harlem Quartet launched into it with exceptional warmth and energy, capturing all its Schumannesque enthusiasm and balancing the earthy and the ethereal in its timbres.

As an encore, they played Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A-Train,” which became such a classic with Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. Each of the musicians took their riff in turn, giving us an idea of how they developed their individual approach to quartet playing, which is not totally unique to them, but one which they have fearlessly cultivated beyond most of their colleagues. The audience was delighted with the encore and everything that preceded it, and rightly so.

After the concluding concert of the season David Finckel addressed a few words to some supporters of Tannery Pond. He pointed out how crucial institutions are in keeping chamber music alive and that Tannery Pond was, in terms of the critical quality behind its presentations and the warmth and generosity of its support, occupied a place among the very best. How right he is!

Michael Miller, Berkshire Review
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