The Harlem Quartet returned to the Maverick Concert Hall last Sunday with “The Survivors: Haydn, Ellington, and William Grant Still.” Flautist Brandon Patrick George and pianist Terrence Wilson joined in for two chamber arrangements of symphonies by Joseph Haydn.
The Harlem opened with two movements by William Grant Still, known during his lifetime as the “Dean of Afro-American Composers.” He collaborated closely with other prominent African-American literary and cultural figures, securing a place in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. The Quiet One and The Sentimental One from Still’s suite Lyric Quartette appealingly called to mind the songs of Stephen Collins Foster with charm, good humor, and sweetness, engaging the audience with a felicity that never once strayed into the maudlin.
Owing to difficulties in obtaining the score for Still’s Pastorela for Flute and Piano, we instead heard two solos. Brandon Patrick George played Debussy’s Syrinx for solo flute. This little bijou comes from a play based on the story of Syrinx, a nymph who escaped the importunities of the Greek god Pan by turning herself into a reed. When Pan hears the sound of the wind in the riverside growth he forms them into a flute—a panpipe or syrinx. George evinced with deftness and sensuality Debussy’s take on this #MeToo story (neither the first nor the last in Greek mythology). George commingled the power and allure of the god with the grief and desolation of the nymph in compelling and heart-sore execution.
The word “toccata” comes from the Italian toccare, meaning “to touch” or “to strike.” One thus expected fast-moving, improvisatory passages, imitative bits, sudden changes in tempo and harmony, and, above all, virtuosity in Prokofiev’s Toccata in D minor, Op. 11, the second last-minute addition. Terrence Wilson’s ferocious and fearless, high-wire mastery of the colossally challenging little piece refreshing immensely.
Delightful arrangements of Haydn’s “Surprise,” and “London,” symphonies were by the composer’s contemporary Johann Peter Salomon, a German violinist, composer, conductor and musical impresario best known for bringing Haydn to London. On the piano, Terrence Wilson filled in some of the harmonies and served as a sort of continuo, providing bulk and adding substance. Brandon Patrick Georges flute added brilliance and virtuosity. First violinist Ilmar Gavilàn delivered several thrilling solo cadenzas that Maverick’s music director, Alexander Platt, said would most likely have been performed by Maestro Solomon while Haydn conducted from the harpsichord.
To close, the Harlem Quartet gave a quick, upbeat reading of Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train.” The Harlem Quartet has adopted the Duke Ellington Band’s signature work as its own.