Arts Beat: Weekly Thoughts From the Inside

Harlem Quartet mixes it up for the M.V. Chamber Music Society.

Harlem String Quartet, from left: violinist Ilmar Gavilan, violinist Melissa White, violist Jaime Amador, and cellist Felix Umansky. —Amy Schroeder

“Vibrant. Exuberant. High-energy. Full of surprises.” A great sports team? The latest Lady Gaga video? A luscious sunset? Nope. It’s how Louisa Gould, Martha’s Vineyard Chamber Music Society’s executive director, describes the Harlem Quartet, performing on the Vineyard for their fifth consecutive season on Monday, August 5, at the Old Whaling Church.

If you know classical music, you understand the word “string” is implied in Harlem Quartet’s name. That’s two violinists, one violist, and one cellist. String quartets are the most common classical ensemble outside of symphony orchestras. That’s because there is so much music written for string quartets, much of it great, groundbreaking music, like all of Beethoven’s 16 quartets, or Mozart’s Hayden Quartets. Or Brahms’ three quartets. But more on Brahms later.

The Harlem Quartet is an internationally known, awardwinning ensemble founded in 2006 by the Sphinx Organization, a national nonprofit dedicated to building diversity in classical music and providing access to music education in underserved communities.

Harlem Quartet was created by the invitation of Sphinx, with major support from Target, to serve their mission specifically in Harlem, hence the name. The original ensemble jelled so well, they decided to keep going after the Target project was completed, combining far-reaching artists-in-the-schools programs with international concertizing. Harlem Quartet made their Carnegie Hall debut in 2006, and have been flying high ever since. The original four Harlem Quartet members were all soloists as first prize laureates of the Sphinx Competition, open to African American and Latinx students from middle school through college. Current violinists Ilmar Gavilán and Melissa White are founding members. Violist Jaime Amador joined in 2012, and cellist Felix Umansky in 2015.

To put the significance of Sphinx’s initiatives in perspective, consider Yo-Yo Ma’s thoughts: “I am just in awe of what Sphinx has accomplished, but even more excited about its future.” He should know.

In a sentiment that mirrors MVCMS’s ongoing artist-in-the-schools programming, cellist Umansky says, “Music education is unbelievably important. Of course it’s not meant to turn each student into a professional musician. But it does provide in-depth experience in skill-building, discipline, the satisfaction of progress. It builds critical thinking and problem-solving skills. When learning an instrument, it’s important — like learning other skills — to find the balance between simple enjoyment of the activity and the focus it takes to commit to daily practice. My colleague Melissa White always says learning to play is like learning a language — you start with letters, add words, phrases, sentences, and then complete musical thought.”

For the upcoming performance, Harlem Quartet has put together a program called “Cross-Pollination.” There’s William Bolcom’s “Three Rags for String Quartet,” an homage to ragtime, originally composed for piano and rearranged for numerous ensembles. Umansky says there’s “so much humor woven into the piece, which doesn’t need to be explained, but is certainly there.” It’s a comment that challenges us to listen to classical music, not only as classical highbrow, but classical, cheeky, lowbrow. Let yourself go, and see if a chuckle bubbles up. 

Claude Debussy makes an appearance in his “String Quartet in G Minor, Opus 10,” a work where he broadens his explorations into musical color and expanded harmony. Debussy always strikes me as waves of sounds, as horizontal as it is linear. Good music to close your eyes to.

Guido López-Gavilán’s “Cuarteto en Guaguancó” is also part of the mix. A Cuban composer and conductor living in Havana, and violinist Ilmar Gavilán’s father, López-Gavilán brings an Afro-Cuban dance-inspired work. In its original form, the dance music is performed by a singer and percussionist. In this arrangement, the string players use “extended techniques,” which can include nontraditional sounds produced by unusual bowing placement, tapping, or plucking. You may find yourself “extending” some toe action to this one.

And we’re back to Brahms, Opus 67, the only one of Brahms’ quartets written in a major key. Umansky says, “It’s such an incredibly joyous piece. While Brahms wrote only three quartets, he actually burned countless quartets of his own composition, before finally publishing his three quartets.” Yep, he burned his own work. High standards, based on his admiration and awe — and his own internalized comparison to the brilliant Beethoven quartets. Brahms once said of Beethoven, “You don’t know what it means to the likes of us when we hear his footsteps behind us.” What it means for us is that the Brahms we’ll be hearing is jubilant, light, pastoral external movements contrasted with profound, emotional, and brooding middle movements. Throughout, Brahms offers up singing melodies woven through lush harmonies. 

David Behnke, MVCMS board president, says of the Harlem Quartet, “They are certainly one of the pre-eminent quartets in the country. This program is a nice mix of something different with 19th century standards.” Hear for yourself.


Harlem Quartet, presented by the MVCMS, at the Old Whaling Church, 89 Main St., Edgartown, Monday, August 5, at 7:30 pm. Single tickets are $40, online or at the door. For information visit or call 508-696-8055.