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Harlem Quartet Brings Smiles to Kids of All Ages


It surely had that community feel to it when the renowned Harlem Quartet entered past a large, very diverse crowd in Peabody Hall. Two small children stood in the aisle intently listening all the way through Harlem’s dynamic Beethoven. For Mendelssohn, variously sized young folks sat on the floor only feet away from the quartet, and the Jazz and Latin standards showing off Harlem’s long tradition of mixing musical media clearly looked to appeal here.

The prescient vision of Ashmont Hill Chamber Music and the generous support of Trinity Financial brought the Harlem Quartet to the parish of All Saints in Dorchester. AHCM’s Board President David Hale Mooney reported that this concert marked the start of its collaboration with Project STEP, whose mission is “to identify talented children from underrepresented Boston communities and to provide them with comprehensive music and string instrument instruction.” The ensemble had given a masterclass for Project STEP earlier in the day.

Applause broke out when the foursome barely finished up a very robust and suspense-filled iteration of the first movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Quartet Op. 18, No. 4. You had to wonder what was going on in the minds of those youngsters, one of whom was leaning into the aisle like a statue to catch every animated movement of the players.

No letup came with the Scherzo. Those short motives of only a few notes Beethoven so ingeniously passed around from instrument to instrument the beautiful blend of the Harlem four. Their melding thrilled in those passages where Beethoven’s power penchant arose. Power indeed was with them. All Saints’ Peabody Hall reacted as if some electronic amplification might have been in use.

There being no slow movement, the players made the perfect choice from among Beethoven’s many and varied string quartets. The size and scope of this C minor opus made it all the more attractive, one would imagine, to any new listeners to this genre. And to that end, Harlem continued the fast moving action, producing a sturdy danceable Menuetto. Allegretto. The trio, or middle section, quieted down into loving character.

Despite scattered clapping after each movement, this you-could-hear-a-pin-drop audience burst out with giant applause, smiles from Harlem, Dorchester appearing everywhere in the hall.

Harlem Quartet (file photo)
Harlem Quartet (file photo)

I am not quite so sure that Harlem’s crossing over, as they have done for years, really worked in Peabody Hall. That amazing resonance, coupled with the quartet’s own penchant for big sound and abundant action, generated heaviness foreign to the likes of jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and salsa composer Rafael Hernandez. That unyielding straight-ahead boldness favored by the quartet mostly eschewed nuance and diction of America’s indigenous art form. The offbeat riffing of the cello became an annoyance in “Night in Tunisia.” “El Cumbanchero” fared but a tad better when it softly delivered an episodic passage before opening up with a brilliant crescendo. Otherwise, those inflections that define musica Latina morphed into Harlem’s particular personality.

The program’s length was just right. Perhaps Harlem’s choice of Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet, Opus 44, No. 2 could be questioned, though perhaps not, as the quartet played with punch, winding up with a Presto agitato that was altogether inviting in and of itself. The Andante plodded along, that Peabody Hall resonance factor possibly playing into that effect.

Before that slow third movement, the first violinist for some reason asked the children seated on the floor in close proximity to the quartet to take their original seats. I could not hear his words that came as a surprise accompanied by an uncomfortable feeling.

Fatigue began setting in as the Mendelssohn progressed, due, I believe, to quartet’s underestimating how truly big it was sounding. But then, such a program requires some kind of stamina on the part of the listener.

As to Artistic Director Mary Beth Alger encouragement of clapping after single movements, , it can be noted that after a few rounds of same, applause dropped off. Maybe better to wait until the end of a large work to unleash those handclaps and bravos that issued forth from AHCM’s wonderfully composed audience for the end. All that “joyful noise” Harlem Quartet surely earned.

Harlem Quartet’s members are: Ilmar Gavilan and Melissa White, violins, Jaime Amador, viola, and Felix Umansky, cello.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).

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