Harlem Quartet strives to bring diversity to classical music | Berkshire landscapes


HUDSON, NY — Born in Havana to famed conductor-composer Guido López-Gavilán and the late concert pianist Teresita Junco, at age 14, Afro-Cuban virtuoso Ilmar Gavilán left his native island to study in Moscow and Spain, before settling in the United States. .

Most recently, he was featured with his brother, pianist and composer Aldo López-Gavilán, in the 2020 documentary “Los Hermanos/The Brothers”, seen on PBS; his father and brother still live in Cuba.

On September 17, Gavilán will perform with the Harlem Quartet at Hudson Hall with fellow founding violinist Melissa White, Puerto Rican violist Jaime Amador and cellist Felix Umansky. Presented by Clarion Concerts of Columbia County, the event is the first of what were once called the “Leaf Peeper Concerts.”

The quartet was created in 2006 to present the winners of the Sphinx competition, created in 1997 to reward young virtuosos of black and Latin strings. Based in Harlem, NY, he has performed extensively in the United States and around the world, appearing alongside and recording with many renowned artists and orchestras. A performance at the White House for President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in 2009 was a career highlight for the quartet.

The Hudson Hall concert highlights music from the quartet’s recent album “Cross Pollination” and includes “Cuarteto en Guaguancó,” a piece Gavilán’s father wrote and adapted for string quartet.

“The name Guaguancó is an African word, it’s a traditional piece straight from Cuban slaves,” Gavilán said by phone from San Antonio, during a rehearsal break. “It’s supposed to sing with percussion.”

Doing this with string instruments is challenging, he said, requiring extensive techniques to tap out the beats while playing at the same time.

The quartet will also perform two classical string quartets, by Claude Debussy and Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel.

“We champion composers who aren’t played often, so we’ll be playing a piece by a wonderful composer, Felix Mendelssohn’s little sister, Fanny,” Gavilán said. “We will also be playing the jazz standard, ‘A Night in Tunisia’ by Dizzy Gillespie.”

Gavilán and White have been part of the quartet for 16 years since its inception. Amador played with them for 12 years, Umansky for six.

Originally intended to be ambassadors for the Sphinx Contest, the quartet turned into full-time jobs, Gavilán said. Since their separation from Sphinx, over time they have decided to include players who are not part of the Sphinx family, such as Umansky.

“Harlem itself is no longer an exclusively black or Latino neighborhood,” Gavilán said. “It’s very diverse, like the rest of New York. It’s a pocket of African American culture, but that doesn’t mean it’s segregated, so I don’t think we should be doing that either. Music comes first and we continue to program the connection to African-American culture, whoever our members are.

“In each program you will find elements of the African diaspora, in this case the Afro-Cuban piece written by my father which, musically speaking, is as African as possible. And the jazz tracks are a legacy of the African-American influence in music.

He added: “All music deserves the same respect, the same attention to detail. We spend the same time on quality, excellence, intonation, it doesn’t change whatever genre you play.

The ensemble has a long history of collaborating with jazz musicians and has toured extensively with Chick Corea, winning a Grammy for their recording on her “Hot House” album.

“I think it was our respect for the style that attracted him and other really great jazz artists, Gavilán said. “It’s also about not being pigeonholed,” he said. “We are versatile musicians, exclusively trained as classical musicians in top schools. It just seems cool to do what we do, [and] do good.”

Many composers write pieces for them, he noted. “People contact us, they understand what we are doing. We try to encourage good music that we believe deserves a bigger platform. Unfortunately, many African American, Latino, and female composers fall into this category.

The quartet also presents music with elements of African and jazz inspiration, regardless of the composer’s ethnic origin. Much of this music is overlooked, Gavilán said.

So many of the ingredients of classical music came from Europe, he explained, and in the 20th century many styles of music are being reinvented using those same ingredients.

“Many other places have the source, the nutrition, which can inspire different kinds of tones designed in the same masterful way,” he said. “For ‘Cross Pollination’, we chose Debussy because the 2nd pizzicato movement is inspired by the Gamelan instruments from Java in Indonesia that he heard at the Paris Fair.

“We also chose Debussy and Gillespie because New Orleans was a French colony, which influenced early jazz a lot. Some of the harmonic progressions used by Debussy, we can hear similar type chords in Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia”.

“Just as bees pollinate each other and enrich the world, so it is with music. It’s in no one’s interest to keep putting labels on gender division, it’s almost like dividing humans by race. We are all interconnected and we want to express it with our music.

After meeting with President Obama, the quartet was sent to Africa as State Department Music Ambassadors.

“Ethiopia was so special that some people we played for had never seen our instruments,” said Gavilán. “We played in a conservatory that had never heard of a string quartet. The same thing happened in Alabama, we went to a rural place – full of blonde kids, which surprised me – who had never seen a violin either. It doesn’t matter the country, the race, some people are just not exposed.

“As musicians of color, we need to be as great as we can be and choose great music from people who we think should be featured. Food is a good example, nobody refuses a good dessert because it does not come from your culture. We have to play well and play music from people who look like us. It’s the best we can do to promote diversity.

“A lot of bands attribute their current success to us,” he noted. “It gives me a lot of energy to know that we have paved the way for others.”

Clarion Concerts was founded in 1957 by Newell Jenkins and Jack Hurley as a primarily Baroque series in New York City, with fall performances upstate. Since 1996, first under the direction of Sanford Allen and then in 2014 by his longtime friend, flautist Eugenia Zukerman, Clarion Concerts has grown in both repertoire styles and year-round programming.

“People came [to Clarion Concerts] for a long time, and look to us to bring special things to an otherworldly experience,” said Zukerman, reached with her husband Richard Novik by phone from their home in Columbia County, NY.

“Finally, this season we’re back to holding live concerts,” Novik said, “and the audience has responded well. We had concerts [mostly] at Saint James Place in Great Barrington, and this is our first at Hudson Hall for a few years.

“Diversity is something Clarion is aware of and tries to work on,” added Novik. “It’s a chance to bring wonderful music to our audience. These musicians are really talented, their violist Jaime Amador played with another quartet we had last year.

“It’s going to be a wonderful mix, and we’ve found our audience really appreciates that. Hudson is becoming a very busy town, the remodeled room is quite nice and the acoustics are wonderful.

Children and students can attend Clarion programs for free, and the quartet will teach at Hudson Public Schools the day before the concert. “It’s a great experience for the kids,” Novik said.

“We’re kicking off our fall season with a really amazing set,” Zukerman said. “These artists are musically exciting and have a mission to broaden the palate of the chamber music repertoire. [They] have a very good mix of [musical] diversity with a bow to respect for tradition, too.

“Here in the woods is a very exciting place for music, there are so many concerts,” Zukerman added. “Once the public hears [our] music, they usually want to come back.


What: Harlem Quartet

Who: Ilmar Gavilán and Melissa White, violin; Jaime Amador, viola; Felix Umansky, cello

Where: Hudson Hall, 327 Warren Street, Hudson, NY

When: 7 p.m., Saturday, September 17

Admission: $25, level 2, general admission; $40, level 1, general admission. Free for young people and students on presentation of an identity document.

Tickets and information: 518-822-1438, hudsonhall.org


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