Sunday, April 15, 2018

San Diego Union-Tribune: From Mozart to Ellington, Harlem Quartet shines for ArtPower at UCSD

Harlem Quartet

By Marcus Overton

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Benjamin Franklin once said that wine is the proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. He would surely have added music to that list if he had been at the Harlem Quartet concert on Friday evening in UC San Diego’s Conrad Prebys Concert Hall in a program presented by ArtPower.

Capping a week-long residency of UCSD masterclasses and interactive programs for students in Chula Vista and other area schools, this one-of-a-kind quartet was ready to swing.

Wait. One of a kind? Yes, I’m willing to make that bet. Here’s why.

The Harlem Quartet — violinists Ilmar Gavilán and Melissa White, violist Jaime Amador and cellist Felix Umansky — was born out of the Sphinx Organization, a Detroit-based arts education initiative with a mission to harness the power of the arts to lift kids out of underserved communities through music.

The foursome’s approach reflects Duke Ellington’s declaration that there are two kinds of music: good and bad. The Harlem Quartet takes the whole universe of music as their domain.

So Friday night’s concert covered a lot of territory: quartets by Mozart and Beethoven, some lushly textured bossa nova, a rhythmically challenging Afro-Cuban piece, and that small Anton Webern masterpiece, “Langsamer Satz” (Slow Movement) that out-Mahlers Mahler.

Mozart’s B-flat Major String Quartet, K.458, was one of six he gave in appreciation to his sometime teacher Joseph Haydn. Mozart did not give it the nickname it carries, “The Hunt”, but its expansive opening summons us to the outdoors, and the entire work is shot through with sunshine. The Quartet played it with a pillowy amplitude that never sacrificed clarity to its big richly burnished sound. Throughout its four movements — in fact, throughout the entire concert — the Quartet exhibited an uncanny ability to select perfect tempos that allowed the music to breathe while propelling it forward.

Antonio Jobim’s “The Girl from Ipanema” (arranged by the Quartet and Dave Glenn) passed a tune we all think we know through the prism of four individual musical minds, emerging as a textured rainbow on the other side. What might have appeared to be a musical bon-bon snapped into place later when Webern’s “Langsamer Satz” suddenly seemed to be predicting a musical future in which Ipanema was not as far away from Vienna as you might think.

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