Harlem Quartet Comes to Carlsen Center as Ensemble-in-Residence for Heartland Chamber Music Festival

The Group’s July 31 “Cross Pollination” Concert Will Draw from Diverse Cultures, Exploring Ragtime, Afro-Cuban Rhythms and Classical Music

The Harlem Quartet debuted in 2006, named to honor the Harlem Renaissance of 100 years ago. The ensemble was founded by the Sphinx Organization, which uses classical music to further social justice. It has traveled the world promoting diversity in classical music and engaged young audiences by presenting both traditional string quartet repertoire and a variety of styles by underrepresented composers.

This July, the Harlem Quartet returns to the Kansas City area as ensemble-in-residence for the Heartland Chamber Music Festival at Johnson County Community College’s Carlsen Center.

“Our main goal is to inspire the kids by helping them identify with the music and the performers, to see people that look like them,” said Ilmar Gavilán, violinist and founding member of Harlem Quartet. The quartet includes fellow violinist and founding member Melissa White, as well as Jaime Amador on viola and Felix Umansky on cello.

Harlem Quartet has come to Kansas a few times, including a 2017 residency with the Heartland festival, which has previously invited the Miami String Quartet and the Parker Quartet.

“Having a professional string quartet every summer to work with our local and national students is so critical to their development,” said Victoria Olson, one of the festival’s founders and co-artistic directors.

Harlem Quartet’s concert is called “Cross Pollination.” It explores influences from various cultures in the string quartet and brings together these diverse worlds.

Willliam Bolcom’s “Three Rags for String Quartet” began life as a work for piano, exploring the ragtime style, while Claude Debussy’s “String Quartet” in G minor incorporates the persistent rhythms of Indonesian gamelan. Debussy’s writing style influenced the jazz musicians of New Orleans, and those musicians, in turn, shared ideas with musicians in Cuba, where Gavilán grew up in a prominent musical family.

Originally from Havana, Gavilán studied classical violin but also learned styles like jazz and salsa that he heard on the radio and in the street, at social clubs and carnival. “The music is all around you,” he laughed, “so you pick up a couple of things.”

They’ll also perform a work by Gavilán’s father — composer and conductor Guido López-Gavilán. His “Cuarteto en Guanguancó” uses Afro-Cuban rhythms and textures. The program concludes with Johannes Brahms “String Quartet No. 3, Op. 67,” a pleasant, playful work that has youthful charm, ideal for a primarily young audience.

The concert is a classic example of the sort of eclectic viewpoint the group brings to the genre. Harlem Quartet has worked with masters of many idioms, including Chick Corea and Gary Burton. The quartet was featured on the Grammy Award-winning tune “Mozart Goes Dancing” from Corea and Burton’s album “Hot House.”

An Inspiring Opportunity for Students

But their stay in Kansas is more than just an inspirational performance. During their two-day residency, they also coach the Heartland participants, working with students from middle school through pre-professional level players.

“We work it out that every single student gets to work with them in their group, so it’s really hands-on for the 80 students in the festival,” said Olson.

Harlem Quartet aims to get younger students introduced to the genre and excited about the music. “If you are not careful in how you present it to a beginner, it could be off-putting,” said Gavilán. “It could come across as one of the pieces in a museum, where the teacher says, ‘put your hands behind your back, don’t talk, don’t touch,’ so we try to connect the dots, to make it human, allow them to ask questions.”

“With older students, we try to pass along valuable tools individually, about mastering the instrument. Very often, what stands in the way of young musicians is not the lack of expression, but the tools,” he said.

They also share the emotional or historical context of the music and emphasize communication. These lessons are carried on by the festival faculty, all dedicated chamber musicians themselves.

The festival started out of a need for local teachers to find avenues for their students to develop chamber music skills.

“We were all frustrated that our students had no place to study chamber music unless we sent them to the East Coast or West Coast,” said Olson. “We had all the resources in Kansas City to have a program here.”

Heartland Chamber Music Festival is now in its 19th year. For nine days, the students and staff take over the Carlsen Center for rehearsals, master classes and performances. The program includes a concert by the festival faculty quartet, too, and opportunities for all the students, including live in-studio performances by the Festival Scholars and Camerata on KPR Kansas Public Radio.

Jackie Lee is co-artistic director and coaches the Festival Scholars, eight high-achieving participants who form two string quartets. Over the years, he said, participants have succeeded in national and international competitions. Many have gone on to study music in college and build successful careers. For instance, violinist Philip Marten joined fellow festival students to form the Fairway Quartet while they were all still in high school. After performing with the Kansas City Symphony for a few years following his graduation from Rice University, he won a position with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra as assistant concertmaster.

As the program has grown, they’ve added a junior festival, a concerto competition and an adult festival. Additionally, the organization is piloting a program out of Omaha called String Sprouts, which provides instruments and instruction for underserved children ages 3 to 8. The program completed its second year with a concert performance with the UMKC Conservatory Orchestra in April. It’s also the subject of a five-year documentary project by Bev Chapman.

Sprouts is more than a music program, though, said Olson. It’s designed “as proactive to school readiness, to help brain development, attention span and executive function,” and it’s another way that Heartland provides connections for the region’s students.

“All our Sprouts teachers were at one time Festival Scholars, and all our Sprouts assistants are current Heartland students,” she said.

From student to teacher, local to international, celebrating music at all ages and for all people, Olson said: “I feel like we are building a bridge.”

Johnson County Community College presents the Harlem Quartet July 31 at 7 p.m. in the Carlsen Center’s Polsky Theatre as part of the Heartland Chamber Music Festival. See the full festival concert schedule at www.heartlandchambermusic.org.

Above: Harlem String Quartet, from left to right, cellist Felix Umansky, violinist Melissa White, violist Jaime Amador and violinist Ilmar Gavilán. (photo by Amy Schroeder)

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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