The Harlem Quartet's Melissa White can easily complete the sentence, "If I were not a violinist, I would be a ... ."
"An orthodontist, definitely, definitely," White says. "I loved my braces, which I know is kind of weird. But more than that, I love to smile. I can't really help it — my default is to smile.
"I feel like smiling is such a universal language, and it helps build character and confidence. So I think it would be cool to help better people's smiles every day. It seems like it would be a happy job."
But she had her violin longer than she had the braces. She was 4 when she first spotted the violin, on an episode of Sesame Street. Superstar Itzhak Perlman was playing his instrument, and Elmo was asking about it. That led to two years of begging for her first violin, and many years of intense study. Eventually she landed in The Harlem Quartet, a New York group that comes to Lexington on Sunday night for a concert presented by the Chamber Music Society of Central Kentucky.
It will be a sort of homecoming for White, whose aunt Linda Black lives in Lexington.
"My mom, and in fact my entire family, was born and raised in Louisville," says White, who was born and raised in Lansing, Mich. "So ever since I've been a kid, Kentucky has either been holiday time or summertime when we'd come to visit. So, for me, it's always been a happy place because it usually meant vacation from school and seeing all my cousins."
As with most talented kids, White got increasingly busy as she grew up in Michigan. Private lessons were her initial introduction to violin study, even traveling five hours from Lansing to Chicago for a while. Eventually she enrolled at Interlochen Arts Academy in northern Michigan, and it "was at that point that I realized I really couldn't live without playing the violin," she said.
From Interlochen, White went to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where she studied with acclaimed violinist Ida Kavafian.
In 2006, the Sphinx Organization, which aims to increase diversity in classical music, put together The Harlem Quartet with White, violinist Ilmar Gavilan and violist Juan Miguel Hernandez. The group's original cellist departed last year; Paul Wiancko has stepped in to that spot.
It was a whirlwind start for the ensemble, whose first gig, six weeks after it was formed, was at New York's Carnegie Hall. The concert included the world premiere of a string quartet by Wynton Marsalis.
"Luckily we put something together and it went really well," White says. "It turned out we had more fun than you would think being put together to play for this organization."
Since then, The Harlem Quartet has had numerous big experiences, including playing at the White House for President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, performing on the Today show and recording a new version of West Side Story with the Chicago Sinfonietta.
The program for Sunday's concert is typically diverse for the group, ranging from cornerstone classical artists such as Mozart to jazz stars Chick Corea and Marsalis, whose Quartet No. 1 "At the Octoroon Balls" has become a staple of the quartet's repertoire since that 2006 premiere.
As it does in many cities, the quartet will visit a couple of area schools.
"Their idea behind putting our group together," White says, referring to Sphinx, "was that we would go into a community that does not necessarily come out to hear classical music and give concerts and educate youth who maybe had never seen stringed instruments and show our love, and show how it can be fun."
White's job has ended up producing smiles after all.