New England Conservatory’s Professional String Quartet Program offers young ensembles opportunities to work with NEC faculty while still pursuing their professional careers. The “residency” this program provides is thus pretty much nominal, but it does yield the opportunity to Boston audiences to hear these up-and-coming groups, at least occasionally. One such occasion occurred on March 1 at Jordan Hall for the current resident group, The Harlem Quartet. This ensemble, founded in 2006, originally consisted of first-prize winners of the Sphinx Competition for black and Latino musicians; they have since replaced their original cellist. HQ likes to mix up its programming among traditional classical, vernacular-influenced classical, and straightforwardly vernacular idioms, all of which were in evidence Tuesday.
From the heartland of the European classical tradition came the works with which HQ opened each half of its concert: Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2 in D and Beethoven’s String Quartet in D, op. 18 no. 3, respectively. The Borodin, the more popular of his two quartets, is the one with all those famous themes that got worked into Kismet, and while (perhaps in consequence of this, ever the melodist’s fate) it has taken some knocks for formal weakness. Nevertheless it has great strokes of brilliance: the famous “Nocturne,” its slow movement, achieves great emotional variety with its primary theme just by starting it on different scale degrees. Borodin’s writing for this work leaned considerably on solo turns for the cello (his own instrument) and the first violin. Both Paul Wiancko, the cellist, and Ilmar Gavilán, the violinist, brought luscious tone to their turns in the limelight, as did second violinist Melissa White and violist Juan-Miguel Hernandez, though their opportunities were limited pretty much to the Nocturne.
Although the HQ is only five years old, its members have developed a keenly honed intramural sympathy, so as their individual playing matures we look forward to the kind of top-level music-making one ought to expect of a dedicated string quartet. At this stage, at least as evidenced in the Borodin, there are still a few areas needing work, particularly in rapid passages — and as is perhaps typical of young players, their tempos ran on the fast side, which is not the friendliest treatment for all those great tunes — so articulations could be a bit muddy. Their ensemble sound is also not as forward as one might expect from a New York-based group. There were, let us hasten to add, many things about the performance that were quite impressive, among which we call out Wiancko’s gruff articulation of what becomes the accompaniment figure in the finale’s contrapuntal opening.
Concluding the first half were two movements from the so far only string quartet by legendary jazz musician Chick Corea. Corea, now in his seventieth year, was born here in Chelsea and educated, at least for a time, at Columbia and Juilliard. He made his mark playing with Miles Davis before his illustrious solo career, and became one of the early proponents of fusion styles. His 2004 string quartet The Adventures of Hippocrates was his first composition not involving keyboard. The HQ played the first and last movements, “Quasi tango” and just “Finale,” the latter of which Corea describes only as having a “swift moving tempo.” This is not jazz music, or even jazz-classical fusion, but is strongly jazz influenced in the way Gershwin’s concert music was. Corea’s note (which you have to see on the Boosey & Hawkes web site, as Tuesday’s concert had no written program notes whatever) advises performers to employ a “foot tapping/body-pulse feeling.” The opening movement’s tango was not terribly overt, thus well justifying the “quasi” modifier. It takes a background of open-fifth sonorities and gentle 1930s-feel dissonances to offset a jazzy but not at all pop-ish tune. The work is very well scored for the quartet and conveys a Piazzollan atmosphere without overt Latinisms. The finale resembles a toccata, with furiously racing lines punctuated by chordal blocks. The HQ’s reading was committed and persuasive; we’d love to hear them do the entire five-movement work.
As noted above, the second half opened with the Beethoven, and with this performance we had almost complete satisfaction. After a light and airy take on the first movement exposition, they dug into the development and pulled forth its darker elements. Throughout the four movements, these players demonstrated admirable balance and phrasing and moments of impressive strength; we note also their persuasive shading of dynamics. Our only quibbles came in some cloudily articulated anacrusis [ed: unstressed syllables, not part of the metrical system, at the beginning of a line]. It’s a bit odd to us that the HQ’s Beethoven was so much more satisfying than its Borodin, but there could be many contributing factors as to which we decline to speculate; that’s just how it goes sometimes.
The next installment of their vernacular-influenced repertoire was a set of excerpts from the only work for string quartet so far by Wynton Marsalis, who will be fifty later this year. There is really no need, as Hernandez did in a brief oral program note, to characterize the Juilliard-trained Marsalis as a jazz trumpeter: he is, of course, one of the world’s leading classical trumpeters as well, and has earned his compositional laurels, with the 1997 Pulitzer for his oratorio Blood in the Fields. Still, it is obvious that the spirit of jazz, and especially the Dixieland variety of his native New Orleans, infuses Marsalis’s classical work. The 1995 seven-movement At the Octoroon Balls, which we might characterize from its movement titles as more of a suite, is meant to conjure up all the spirit and the contradictions of Old Nawlins. The HQ played the fifth movement scherzo, “Hellbound Highball,” and the finale “Rampart St. Row House Rag,” but in reverse order. “Highball” depicts that old American obsession, the express train to Hell, while “Rampart St.” gives us the original bordello flavor of the rag. The reversal of order, while putting the faster music last and facilitating a bit of theatrical funny business by having the players walk off stage playing their instruments (the cello too!) to a musical fade-out, comes at the price of undermining the compositional concept.
The ragtime is composed in the William Bolcom fashion, with “wrong notes” and dense dissonances that just barely fail to hide the underlying harmonic structure of I-IV (or V-I if you prefer) in its two halves. It was played with great raucous and lowdown gusto, especially in the many fancy effects Marsalis has employed, like some high-springing spiccato. Even more showy in its FX profile was the “Highball,” with its numerous imitations of railway sounds — separately illustrated by the players before beginning the piece. The other gimmick of the music was to slow down at points, as if to stop, but then pick up again to keep the passengers on board; that train was definitely not bound for glory. Again, the performances were robust, but this time the music failed to cohere artistically. We’re glad Marsalis didn’t actually intend to end his quartet with that movement.
Finally, the HQ gave the audience a genuine bit of crossover, in Paul Chihara’s arrangement of Billy Strayhorn’s Take the A Train, so closely associated now with Duke Ellington, for whose band Strayhorn wrote it. Chihara’s rendering of the head is straightforward but eminently idiomatic for the quartet. The HQ for this work all faced the audience, without the clutter of music stands, and stood (well, not Wiancko) for their solos. Each of course played with great virtuosity; we were bemused, though, at how conservatively they stuck to the melodic and harmonic plan of the tune. It was a rousing way to end the program, especially in the context of the other works played.