That is the word that summarizes the concert given by the Harlem Quartet Tuesday at the Kravis Center’s Rinker Playhouse.
The New York-based ensemble’s varied program proved that, when smartly programmed, new music can co-exist with the old masterworks, creating an appealing combination.
The evening started with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s String Quartet No. 15 in D Minor, K 421. As part of the “Haydn Quartets” series (the second to be heard in the area in one week), the work demonstrates Mozart compositional mastery and his elevation of the genre to new heights. No wonder Joseph Haydn was so enthusiastic about this opus that he remarked that Mozart: “is the greatest composer known to me in person or by name.”
The Harlem Quartet’s reading emphasized the work’s elegance and expressiveness. Most remarkable was the sense of balance among the players. Contrary to other ensembles, the Harlem Quartet was not dominated by the first violin. As a result, one could hear more clearly the intricate contrapuntal lines throughout the four movements.
The program continued with selections from The Adventures of Hippocrates by jazz legend Chick Corea. Full of invention and that most precious element so often ignored by contemporary composers — brevity — the three movements selected by the quartet were performed with gusto. The selection not only displayed the ensemble’s technical abilities but also its natural groove.
That affinity continued with the next selection, an arrangement of the standard Take the “A” Train by Billy Strayhorn. While most popular songs gain an unwanted “elevator music” sheen when played by symphony orchestras, they fare much better in good transcriptions for smaller ensembles. That added sophistication was apparent in the Harlem Quartet’s interpretation, which was warmly received by the audience.
The second part consisted of the String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor, D 810 (Death and the Maiden) by Franz Schubert. Like many of Schubert’s masterworks, the quartet was published posthumously and has secured a place as one of the pillars of the canon.
Once more, the quartet gave a satisfying performance in which the balanced approach provided for clear contrapuntal lines and overall structure. The members deserved the standing ovation at the end of the emotionally drenching composition.
Clearly, the classical music world would benefit from more ensembles as versatile and accomplished as the Harlem Quartet.