Harlem Quartet, Strads ‘Take the A Train’
The Harlem Quartet continues to break new ground in the world of classical music, and at the group’s recent performance at the Library of Congress, a bit of music history was made, too.
“There’s definitely been people who have played jazz on a Strad before, no doubt,” first violin Ilmar Gavilan said, referring to the legendary instruments made by Antonio Stradivari and the jazz standard written by Billy Strayhorn for Duke Ellington’s orchestra. “But a quartet playing jazz, and specifically this arrangement, which is pretty recent, I think I’m going to go out on a limb — this is history!”
[Listen to the Harlem Quartet play ‘Take the A Train’ with Stradivariuses.]
Every year the Library of Congress invites some of the world’s best classical musicians to mark the day the famed instrument maker died by putting on a concert using the Library’s collection of 17th and 18th century Stradivariuses.
“I felt really strange,” viola player Juan-Miguel Hernandez said. “It was a funny idea that I am going to play some real jazz on a Strad.”
[Listen to Hernandez, Gavilan, Melissa White and Desmond Neysmith talk about their performance.]
Young, energetic and extremely talented, the Harlem Quartet, composed of black and Hispanic musicians, is on a mission to diversify the classical music community. Currently, less than 3 percent of professional classical musicians are Hispanic and fewer than 2 percent are black.
Founded in 2006, the four members of the group were top prize winners of competitions put on by the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization. Now entering its twelfth year, Sphinx was started by violinist Aaron Dworkin to encourage and highlight the talents of black and Latino players. It holds an annual competition for high school students and sponsors classes and workshops around the country.
“We hope that as much fun as we have on stage gets across to the audience,” said Melissa White, the only U.S-born member of the quartet. (Gavilan is originally from Cuba; Hernandez hails from Canada; and cellist Desmond Neysmith is from London.) “And if a single kid in the audience picks up on that and it makes them interested in music ever so slightly, we feel like job well done,” White added.
When asked what the quartet means to the larger classical music community, Carter Brey, principal cellist for the New York Philharmonic, who joined the group for the second half of the Library of Congress performance, said, “Incredibly important, irreplaceable. I am very grateful they are on the scene.”