The Harlem Quartet offered an eclectic program for lovers of string quartet music Sunday afternoon in the Singletary Center.
The concert was sponsored by the Chamber Music Society of Central Kentucky. The society and its patrons certainly got their money's worth from the Harlem Quartet, which showed its versatility and range, with classical, contemporary and jazz pieces.
The group opened with a lovely performance with Mozart's Quartet in D Minor, K. 421, one of the staples of the repertoire. Their gracefully nuanced approach to the familiar work lent distinction to their interpretation. First violinist Ilmar Gavilan rendered his beautiful shaping of the melodies with particular individuality, and the rich viola sonority Juan-Miguel Hernandez drew from his instrument gave the quartet a uniquely burnished sound throughout the program.
In the passionate and thorny Quartet No. 1 in B minor by Prokofiev, the quartet demonstrated magnificent ensemble playing of highly virtuosic music.
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The first half ended with yet another drastic shift in musical styles, a quartet arrangement of Billy Strayhorn's jazz standard Take the A Train. Each of the quartet's members, including second violinist Melissa White and cellist Paul Wiancko, took a solo in typical jazz fashion, highlighting their personalities and styles. All were good, but Hernandez demonstrated especially excellent jazz chops.
The Harlem Quartet's affinity for jazz sets it apart from other quartets vying for prominence in a crowded niche of classical music, and it devoted the second half of the concert to works for string quartet by legendary jazz artists. First, they played two movements, a tango and a fugue, from The Adventures of Hippocrates by the great jazz pianist Chick Corea, with whom they are scheduled to perform later this week in New York.
They ended the concert with several movements of Wynton Marsalis' Quartet No. 1 "At the Octoroon Ball," the work with which the group made a splashy Carnegie Hall debut in 2006. They play it like they own it.
The various quartet members also narrated the program. Their engaging personalities and interesting commentary greatly enhanced the audience's enjoyment and appreciation of the music.
However, in the "classical music" part of the program, cellist Wiancko did not seem as engaged as the other three players in his stage attitude. The others made constant eye contact with each other, and tried to do so with Wiancko, but he sat stolidly and played.
None of this hampered the musical quality of the ensemble at all, and from the Strayhorn piece onward, he suddenly came out of his shell, and the group appeared to function more happily as a true quartet, rather than as a trio plus a really good cellist.