The Harlem Quartet presented a study in “odd man out”at the Tannery Pond Concert series in New Lebanon, NY. For one thing, their regular cellist Paul Wiancko was indisposed, so cellist Ismar Gomes was a last-minute substitute. For another, three of the quartets played were their composers’ first efforts in the string quartet form — Beethoven’s Op. 18, No. 3 in D major, and the first and only quartets by “Chick” Corea and Maurice Ravel, while Joaquín Turina’s L’Oración del Torero “The Bullfighter’s Prayer,” was an arrangement of his third work for lute quartet, and his second work for string quartet. Three of the quartets had strong Latin elements (Latin and jazz rhythms in the Corea, all of the Turina, and more Spanish rhythms in the Ravel; only Germanic Beethoven stood apart). And, there was the contrast between the sweltering heat and humidity in the Darrow School environs with the ensemble’s cool, groovy playing.
Early Beethoven quartets like Op.18, No. 3, with its fast exchanges of musical ideas between the different instruments, sharp contrasts of tempo and dynamic, and virtuosic writing for all the instruments, test a quartet’s mettle. The Harlem was more than equal to the task; watching each other like hawks, grinning at one anothers’ nice touches and deploying an impressive dynamic range. They tossed off brisk scherzo and finale movements with panache while slowing collectively without missing a beat at those Beethovenian delayed cadences. First violinist Ilmar Gavilan tore through his fiendish part with gusto, but had the good taste to back off when others had the spotlight. Substitute cellist Gomes fit into the ensemble right away; one distinctly phrased off-beat accent in the exposition of the first movement was picked up and echoed by second violinist Melissa White in the recapitulation, one of many nifty touches throughout the piece. (I understand that this is the first time he has ever worked with this group, and on surprisingly short notice; he works so well with the other three members that I hope the Harlem Quartet will return with Gomes to play Schubert’s String Quintet.)
Armando Anthony “Chick” Corea is a celebrated jazz pianist and composer, but his String Quartet #1, “The Adventures of Hippocrates” (possibly inspired by a sci-fi robot, rather than the founder of classical medicine) deserves to be taken seriously in the classical canon. The Harlem Quartet played three movements of this five-movement work — the opening Tango, the second movement Waltz and the final Quasi Fugue. The Argentinean dance is very much in evidence in the opening movement, but then there are moments like one when each member of the quartet has a different strong beat within several four-beat measures, or the pungent decaying chord that closes the movement that feel perfectly at home in straight-up classical music. The Waltz opens in a recognizable triple meter but doesn’t stay beholden to this rhythm. Instead, Corea draws inspiration from it and goes musically to very different places. (Papa Bach would be proud.) The Quasi fugue calls for a swift moving tempo, whip-crack ensemble execution, and a funk sensibility. The Harlem Quartet had all of this, and presented it with disarming informality. Violist Juan Miguel Hernández and first violinist Gavilan introduced different movements and related amusing anecdotes about working with Chick on the quartet.
Sultry weather helped to set up the second half, which refracted Spanish atmosphere through a Parisian compositional lens. Turina’s L’Oración del Torero captures that fleeting moment in a bullfight when the matador prays for himself and the bull. The opening Agitato is played in high harmonics, reflecting his French training for using unorthodox string sounds to create an impressionistic atmosphere. Out of this atmosphere emerges a characteristically Spanish tune, developed with fugato procedures, recapitulating, developing further, then drifting upwards to the highest natural registers of the four instruments. The Harlem Quartet is the ideal group for this kind of piece, embracing the curviness of the Latin melody, with enough chops to rise in pitch and fall in dynamics to an exquisitely hushed conclusion. They took my breath away in the same way that the bullfighter or bull would at the moment of truth.
The best performance of the evening was of the Ravel Quartet. Ensemble execution was immaculate, even with the fastest of parallel rhythmic figures and the dense pizzicato figures of the second movement. The Quartet brought out a tango rhythm in the Trio of the second movement that I had never noticed before; played with gorgeous, sumptuous ringing overtones in the third movement; and the players sizzled through an aggressively fast finale, yet managed to slow things up mid-movement enough to bring out Ravel’s compositional motifs with crystalline clarity. Special note must go to violist Hernández, who was a joy to watch all evening as he watched the other members of the group with steadfast focus, dug into his playing with enough brio to leave his feet while sitting in his chair, and summoned a luscious singing tone from his viola — he was a particularly stand-out in this quartet.
The full house erupted at the conclusion of the Ravel. The group complied with an encore, a riff on the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn classic, “Take the ‘A’ Train.” Cellist Gomes started off plucking his strings, like a string bassist in a jazz group, and then each of the instruments got a chance to solo before the piece wrapped up with a bang. Keep an eye out for the Harlem Quartet — it will be fun to watch the foursome’s rise.