Harlem Quartet strings together old and new music

Musical and cultural diversity are at the heart of what the Harlem Quartet is all about. The string ensemble brings an eclectic program to Columbia when it performs for the Candlelight Concert Society series on Saturday, Feb. 2, at 8 p.m., at Howard Community College's Smith Theatre.

This program's mix of venerable classical selections and contemporary compositions features Turina's "La Oracion del Torero," Op. 34; Haydn's Quartet in D minor, Op. 76, No. 2, "Fifths"; Chick Corea's "Adventures of Hippocrates"; Mozart's Quartet No. 15 in D minor, K. 421; and Walter Piston's Quartet No. 1.

The Harlem Quartet, which previously appeared for the Candlelight series in 2010, has been doing varied programs since it made its debut at New York's Carnegie Hall in 2006. The quartet was founded that year by the Sphinx Organization, a national nonprofit which seeks to increase diversity in classical music and concurrently bring classical music to underserved communities.

This ensemble actually has performed in all sorts of communities in the United States, United Kingdom, France, Panama and Canada. Last year, it played concerts and did outreach programs in South Africa courtesy of a U.S. State Department-facilitated tour.

Another federal government-related concert of note was when the Harlem Quartet performed for President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House in 2009.

Among its other institutional and international activities, last year the Harlem Quartet completed its second year in the Professional String Quartet Residency program at the New England Conservatory; it also participated in that music school's string quartet exchange program in Paris, where these four musicians worked with violinist Gunter Pichler in a master-class setting.

Also in what must have been a busy 2012, the Harlem Quartet joined with Music Director Mei-Ann Chen and the Chicago Sinfonietta for the world premiere of Randall Craig Fleischer's arrangement for string quartet and orchestra of Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story." The quartet has since done this same work in Anchorage, Alaska, and Santa Fe, N.M.; and recorded it for a CD that also includes works by Michael Abels and Benjamin Lees.

Such credentials speak to this ensemble's keen interest in collaboration. The Harlem Quartet has performed with violinist Itzhak Perlman, clarinetist Paquito D'Rivera, cellist Carter Brey, and pianist Misha Dichter (with whom the quartet makes its Kennedy Center debut on Feb. 6).

Collaborations in the recording studio include a CD with pianist Awadagin Pratt in which they did works by contemporary American composer Judith Lang Zaimont.

Their collaborative nature and contemporary alertness make it seem fitting that these four musicians have a strong interest in jazz. Indeed, the Harlem Quartet went on a so-called Hot House Tour with jazz performers Chick Corea and Gary Burton. The ensemble also has recorded with Corea.

Also, the Harlem Quartet has performed at the Montreal Jazz Festival; and it has a 2007 recording that includes a string quartet version of Billy Strayhorn's jazz standard "Take the A Train."

The group's diversity in musical choices is matched by the diversity of its membership.

Violinist Ilmar Gavilan is a native of Cuba. He began his studies at the Havana Conservatory of Music; and then went to the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow, Reina Sofia School of Music in Spain and Manhattan School of Music in New York City. He's currently a Doctor of Musical Arts candidate at Rutgers University, where his mentor is Arnold Steinhardt. Gavilan is concertmaster of the Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra; and he has performed concertos with orchestras including the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

A founding member of the Harlem Quartet, violinist Melissa White originally is from Lansing, Mich. She received her bachelor's degree from the Curtis Institute of Music, and a master's and a graduate diploma from the New England Conservatory. She and pianist Yekwon Sunwoo were the winners of the first prize in the chamber music round of the William Kapell International Piano Competition. She has been a soloist for orchestras including the Baltimore Symphony.

Jaime Amador Medina, who plays the viola, was born in Puerto Rico. He studied at the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music, Juilliard School and Manhattan School of Music. A former member of the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra, he is active with international music festivals.

Cellist Matthew Zalkind, who is from Salt Lake City, received his bachelor's and master's degrees from the Juilliard School. Winner of first prize in the 2012 Washington International Competition, he has played at concerts internationally, and currently is a doctoral student instructor at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor.

The Harlem Quartet performs on Saturday, Feb. 2, at 8 p.m., at Howard Community College's Smith Theatre, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, in Columbia. There is a pre-concert discussion at 7:15 p.m. with the quartet and Candlelight Concerts Artistic Director Holly Thomas. Tickets are $30, $28 for seniors, $12 for students ages 18-24, and free for ages 9-17 when accompanied by a paid adult. Call 410-997-2324 or go to http://www.candlelightconcerts.org.

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