<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=915327909015523&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1" target="_blank"> Skip to main content
You are the owner of this article.
You have permission to edit this article.

Harlem Quartet focused on bringing diversity to classical music


The Harlem Quartet, left to right, Ilmar Gavilán, Jaime Amador, Melissa White and Felix Umansky, will play at Hudson Hall, in Hudson, N.Y., on Saturday, Sept. 17.

HUDSON, N.Y. — Born in Havana to renowned conductor composer Guido López-Gavilán and late concert pianist Teresita Junco, at age 14, the Afro-Cuban virtuoso Ilmar Gavilán left his island home to study in Moscow and Spain, before settling in the United States. 

Most recently, he was featured with his brother, pianist and composer Aldo López-Gavilán, in the 2020 documentary “Los Hermanos/The Brothers,” seen on PBS; both his father and brother still live in Cuba.

On Sept. 17, Gavilán will perform with the Harlem Quartet at Hudson Hall along with fellow founding violinist Melissa White, Puerto Rican violist Jaime Amador, and cellist Felix Umansky. Presented by Clarion Concerts of Columbia County, the event is the first of what used to be known as the “Leaf Peeper Concerts.”

The quartet was created in 2006 to showcase winners of the Sphinx Competition, established in 1997 to recognize virtuosic young Black and Latinx string players. Based in Harlem, N.Y, it has performed extensively in the U.S. and around the world, appearing alongside and recording with many distinguished musical artists and orchestras. A White House performance for President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama in 2009 was a highlight of the quartet’s career.

The Hudson Hall concert highlights music from the quartet’s recent album “Cross Pollination,” and includes “Cuarteto en Guaguancó,” a piece Gavilán’s father wrote and adapted for string quartet.

“The name Guaguancó is an African word, it’s a traditional piece straight from the Cuban slaves,” Gavilán said by phone from San Antonio, during a break from rehearsal. “It’s meant to be chanting with percussion.”

Doing that with string instruments is challenging, he said, requiring extended techniques to tap the beats while playing at the same time.

The quartet will also perform two classical string quartets, by Claude Debussy and Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel.

“We champion composers that are not played often, so we will be playing a piece by a wonderful female composer, Felix Mendelssohn’s little sister Fanny,” Gavilán said. “We will also play the jazz standard, ‘A Night in Tunisia’ by Dizzy Gillespie.”

Both Gavilán and White have been with the quartet for 16 years, since its inception. Amador has played with them for 12 years, Umansky for six years.

Originally meant to be ambassadors for the Sphinx Competition, the quartet turned into a full-time job, Gavilán said. Since separating from Sphinx, over time they decided to include players who are not part of the Sphinx family, like Umansky.

“Harlem itself is no longer an exclusively Black or Latino neighborhood,” Gavilán said. “It’s very diversified, like the rest of New York. It’s a pocket of African American culture, but that doesn’t mean it’s segregated, so I don’t think we should do that either. The music comes first, and we keep programming the connection to African American culture, no matter who our members are.

“In every program you will find components of the African diaspora, in this case the Afro-Cuban piece written by my dad which musically speaking is as African as it gets. And jazz pieces are a legacy of African American influence in music.”

He added, “All music deserves the same respect, the same attention to detail. We spend the same amount of time on quality, excellence, intonation, these don’t change regardless of what genre you play.”

The ensemble has long collaborated with jazz musicians and toured extensively with Chick Corea, winning a Grammy for their recording on his album “Hot House.”

“I think it’s our respect to the style that attracted him and other really great jazz artists,” Gavilán said. “It’s also about not being pigeonholed,” he said. “We are broad musicians, exclusively trained as classical musicians at great schools. It just seems fresh to do what we do, [and] do it well.”

Many composers write pieces for them, he noted. “People reach out to us, they understand what we do. We try to encourage good music that we think deserves a bigger platform. Unfortunately a lot of African American, Latino and female composers fall into that category.”

The quartet also showcases music with African and jazz-inspired elements, regardless of the composer’s ethnicity. A lot of that music is overlooked, Gavilán said.

So many ingredients of classical music came from Europe, he explained, and in the 20th century many styles of music are reinvented using those same ingredients.

“Many other places have the source, the nutrition, that can inspire different types of sonority crafted in the same masterful way,” he said. “For 'Cross Pollination,' we chose Debussy because the pizzicato 2nd movement is inspired by Gamelan instruments from Java in Indonesia that he heard in the Paris Fair.

“We also chose Debussy and Gillespie because New Orleans was a French colony, which influenced early jazz quite a bit. Some of the harmonic progressions Debussy uses, we can hear similar type chords in Gillespie’s ‘A Night in Tunisia’.”

“Just like bees cross-pollinate and make the world richer, it’s the same with music. It’s not in anybody’s interest to keep putting labels on dividing genres, it’s almost like dividing humans by race. We’re all interconnected, and we want to express that with our music.”

After meeting President Obama, the quartet was sent to Africa as State Department Ambassadors in Music.

“Ethiopia was so out of the ordinary, some people we played for had never seen our instruments,” Gavilán said. “We played in a conservatory which had never heard a string quartet. The same thing happened in Alabama, we went to a rural place — full of blonde kids, which surprised me — that had never seen a violin either. It doesn’t matter what country, what race, some people are just not exposed.

“As musicians of color, we have to be as excellent as we can and choose great music from people we think should be showcased. Food is a good example, nobody refuses a good dessert because it doesn’t come from your culture. We have to play great and play music from people that look like us. That’s the best we can do for promoting diversity.”

“A lot of groups credit us for their current success,” he noted. “It gives me a lot of good energy to know we’ve paved the way for others.”

Clarion Concerts was founded in 1957 by Newell Jenkins and Jack Hurley as a mostly Baroque series in New York City, with fall presentations upstate. Since 1996, first under the leadership of Sanford Allen then in 2014 by his longtime friend, flutist Eugenia Zukerman, Clarion Concerts expanded both in repertoire styles and to year-round programming.

“People have been coming [to Clarion Concerts] for a long time, and look toward us to bring special things to an other-world experience,” said Zukerman, reached with her husband Richard Novik by phone at their Columbia County, N.Y., home.

“Finally, this season we’re back to holding live concerts,” said Novik, “and the audience has responded nicely. We’ve had concerts [mostly] at Saint James Place in Great Barrington, and this is our first at Hudson Hall in a couple of years.”

“Diversity has been something Clarion has been conscious of and trying to work on,” Novik added. “It’s a chance to bring wonderful music to our audience. These musicians are really talented, their violist Jaime Amador played with another quartet we had last year.”

“It’s going to be a wonderful mix, and we’ve found our audience really does enjoy that. Hudson is becoming a very vibrant city, the renovated hall is quite beautiful and the acoustics are wonderful.

Children and students can attend Clarion programs free of charge, and the quartet will teach in Hudson public schools the day before the concert. “It’s a great experience for the kids,” Novik said.

“We’re starting our fall season with a really amazing ensemble,” Zukerman saidd. “These artists are musically exciting and have a mission to broaden the palate of the chamber music repertoire. [They] have a very nice blend of [musical] diversity with a bow to reverence of tradition, too.”

“Up here in the woods, it’s a very exciting area for music, there are so many concerts,” Zukerman added. “Once the audience hears [our] music, they generally want to come back.”


What: Harlem Quartet

Who:  Ilmar Gavilán and Melissa White, violin; Jaime Amador, viola; Felix Umansky, cello

Where: Hudson Hall, 327 Warren Street, Hudson, N.Y

When: 7 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 17

Admission: $25, tier 2, general admission; $40, tier 1, general admission.  Free for youth and students with current ID.

Tickets and information: 518-822-1438, hudsonhall.org  

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.