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Jazz and classical meet via Harlem

Despite a small audience in Yardley Hall for the Performing Arts Series at Johnson County Community College on Sunday night, Harlem Quartet put on a memorable and engaging show displaying skills both in classical and contemporary/jazz styles. First violinist Ilmar Gavilán’s spoken program notes gave visually evocative descriptions of the pieces on the first half of the concert. For Haydn’s “Fifths” Quartet in D Minor, Op. 76, No. 2 he imagined a birds-eye view of London and life there at the turn of the nineteenth century, and for Beethoven’s Quartet No. 6 in B-flat Major, Op. 18 it was easy to picture his vision of a forceful swordfight.

In these two works, the quartet exhibited tight phrasing and well-controlled, starkly contrasting dynamics. Animated physicality abounded throughout, and the players really “dug in” during sections dominated by fiercely driving dance rhythms (the third movements of both works, for example). The pieces’ slow second movements featured Gavilán sensitively conveying more graceful melodies. Another highlight of the first half was the lighthearted interplay between Gavilán and cellist Matt Zalkind to begin the first movement of Beethoven’s quartet. After so much expressiveness, the players’ comfortably switched moods to the somber and intense finale of the Beethoven, carefully handling its challenging, delicate sul tasto sonorities and intonation before bursting into the sprightly, energetic conclusion.

The second half of the night showcased Harlem Quartet’s affinity and aptitude for jazz, starting with selections from Chick Corea’s The Adventures of Hippocrates. The first movement had the foursome grooving to a low-string backbeat and taking full advantage of this dark conceptual tango’s sexy swagger. Harlem embraced the somewhat-antiquated opening of the “Waltz,” but soon the movement’s “yammy harmonies” (per Gavilán’s introduction of the work) were brought forth beautifully. Cellist Zalkind enjoyed another solo feature in the “Fugue,” a robust complement to the “Waltz” with its rapid linear motion counterpoint among all voices.

Harlem Quartet closed the program with selections from Wynton Marsalis’s At the Octoroon Balls. Each movement an individual miniature, the four presented fit together nicely and were just plain fun to hear and watch live. “Rampart St. Row House Rag” was a rather theatrical performance, allowing each instrument time in the spotlight and included sound manipulation of the instruments to represent laughing, whistling, and general ragtime cheekiness. Extended techniques were expertly utilized in the slinky, dissonant “Mating Calls and Delta Rhythms” and groovy “Creole Contradanzas,” from spiccato to sul ponticello to string-crossing harmonic arpeggios. The final movement played, “Hellbound Highball,” was easily the most memorable, with effects like high-register zips (the whistle) and scratch tones (the brakes) to musically portray a locomotive. The work’s foundation of relentless chunky rhythms throughout led to a raucous blues coda at the end, and the performers departed the stage while still playing.

For its finale, Harlem Quartet played the title track from its 2007 debut album, an idiomatic arrangement of Billy Strayhorn’s Take the “A” Train—another excellent vehicle for the young quartet’s affable nature and infectious energy.

Performing Arts Series at Johnson County Community College
Harlem Quartet
Sunday, February 10, 2013
Yardley Hall, Carlsen Center, JCCC Campus
12345 College Blvd, Overland Park, KS
For more information, visit

Kristin Shafel Omiccioli,, Kansas City's Online Journal of the Arts
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