Harlem String Quartet Adds Pizazz to Classical Concert

This weekend, the Colby Music Department kicked off their fall season with a concert by the Harlem String Quartet, who played a mélange of classical and modern works in Lorimer Chapel on Saturday evening. This Grammy Award-winning music group boasts an impressive resume that includes a performance at the White House, international tours, and collaborations with such artists as Itzhak Perlman, Paquito D’Rivera, and the jazz duo Chick Corea and Gary Burton. Known for their characteristic blend of classical and popular music, they have been praised by the Cincinnati Enquirer for “bringing a new attitude to classical music, one that is fresh, bracing, and intelligent.” They certainly brought this quality with them when they ventured up north in the unique set list they performed on Saturday, their repertoire ranging from popular works by contemporary Latin American composers to the standard Beethoven String Quartet. But this is hardly new territory for the ensemble, who have been performing similarly eclectic mixes throughout their career. Since their formation and Carnegie Hall debut in 2006, the Harlem Quartet has recorded three albums containing both modern and classical music, the last of which included the piece “Mozart Goes Dancing” that earned them their Grammy for Best Instrumental Composition. While they chose not to perform any original pieces for us on Saturday, their expansive discography is available both on their website and on iTunes.

The Harlem String Quartet has a mission beyond music that influences and drives their style. The group was originally formed by the Sphinx Organization, an initiative to encourage Black and Latino children to participate in music, after the founding members won in their annual competition. Named after the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, the Harlem Quartet strives to carry on its legacy of cultural innovation and social improvement through art. They say their goal is to “advance diversity in classical music by engaging young and new audiences through the discovery and presentation of varied repertoire…[including] works by composers of under-
represented groups.”

This performance was labeled a “Revolutions” event in coordination with the Arts & Humanities theme this year, and the Harlem String Quartet earns this placement not just through their public-minded focus, but also through their innovations in musical style. By including jazz elements, popular pieces, and modern influences in their work, they found that they became more accessible to those who would normally avoid classical music. This eventually developed into a “stylistically bilingual quality” that brought them acclaim in “Mozart Goes Dancing,” and makes their albums unique among the recordings already out there. This effect was apparent during their concert here at Colby, as their exciting and engaging program contained works by both living and dead composers from Peru, Puerto Rico, and Cuba, in both formal and more popular styles.

The Harlem Quartet played with energy and vigor, effortlessly handling the contemporary difficulties of the Garrido-Lecca piece, dancing through the “Almendra” and “El Cumbanchero” (Valdes and Hernandez), and adding a vibrant sound and charm to one of Beethoven’s challenging “Razumovsky” Quartets. The concert was an exciting opening for music at Colby this year, and hopefully will set the tone for more to come.

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