Sunday, August 4, 2019 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.

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.

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.


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

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