The group opened with a lovely performance with Mozart’s Quartet in D Minor, K. 421, one of the staples of the repertoire. Their gracefully nuanced approach to the familiar work lent distinction to their interpretation. First violinist Ilmar Gavilan rendered his beautiful shaping of the melodies with particular individuality, and the rich viola sonority Juan-Miguel Hernandez drew from his instrument gave the quartet a uniquely burnished sound throughout the program.
After the substantial Mozart quartet, the Harlem presented another large work, the passionate and thorny Quartet No. 1 in B minor by Prokofiev, in which they demonstrated magnificent ensemble playing of highly virtuosic music.
The first half ended with yet another drastic shift in musical styles, a quartet arrangement of Billy Strayhorn’s jazz standard Take the A Train. Each of the quartet’s members, including second violinist Melissa White and cellist Paul Wiancko, took a solo in typical jazz fashion, highlighting their individual personalities and styles. All of them were good, but Hernandez demonstrated especially excellent jazz chops in his solo.
The Harlem Quartet’s affinity for jazz sets it apart from other quartets vying for prominence in a crowded niche of classical music, and it devoted the second half of the concert to works for string quartet by legendary jazz artists. First, they played two movements, a tango and a fugue, from The Adventures of Hippocrates by the great jazz pianist Chick Corea, with whom they are scheduled to perform later this week in New York.
They ended the concert with several movements of Wynton Marsalis’ Quartet No. 1 “At the Octoroon Ball,” the work with which the group made a splashy Carnegie Hall debut in 2006. They play it like they own it. It features unusual sounds and effects, and the Harlem players obviously enjoy the artistic challenge of evoking a honky-tonk whorehouse, a sticky swamp roiling with wildlife, and a hell-bound train.
The various quartet members also narrated the program. Their engaging personalities and interesting commentary greatly enhanced the audience’s enjoyment and appreciation of the music. It was also fun to see their interaction as a group as they joked with each other.