Ironically, the Harlem Quartet haven’t played New York much lately. That’s because they have a ongoing London residency when they’re not on international tour. Last night at Lincoln Center, the ensemble – violinists Ilmar Gavilan and Melissa White, violist Jaime Amador and cellist Felix Umansky – reaffirmed how much Manhattan’s loss is the rest of the world’s gain.
“I don’t want you to run away!” Gavilan grinned. He was referring to Walter Piston’s String Quartet No, 3, which as he explained has “A bit of a mathematical approach.” Much as the piece is a study in the counterpoint the composer was famous for, the quartet found a surprising amount of lyricism lurking within, particularly throughout the “grey and rainy” second movement, as Gavilan put it.
Soul battled with math through a Russian-tinged chase scene, austerely acidic washes grounded by viola and cello and a lively steady/dancing dichotomy to close: twelve-tone harmonies, lively classical gestures.
That the Debussy string quartet wasn’t the highlight of the concert attests to the strength of the rest of the program. This was a robust version, awash in wistful French proto-ragtime allusions: another great New York quartet, Brooklyn Rider, recorded a very similar take a few years back. Umansky reminded the crowd how much Debussy wanted to break free of the heavy German influence in the repertoire, so there was a sense of triumph – if often a bittersweet one – throughout the spirited flutters of the opening movement, the spiky pizzicato of the second and then finally a foreshadowed Twin Peaks theme at the end.
Gavilan’s dad, Guido Lopez Gavilan, was represented on the bill by his Quarteto en Guaguanco, which came across like Piazzolla with especially clever, shifting contrapuntal voicings. The group dug in hard, Umansky plucking out nimble basslines up to an interlude where everybody tapped out an altered salsa beat on their instruments.
The best number of the night was the encore, Take the A Train. Hearing a great string section play the blues is always a treat, this one elevated to even greater heights on the wings of the group’s dramatic flourishes and sparkles as they swung it – and maybe even improvised a little – Umansky again playing the role of bassist.
Much as the programming at Lincoln Center’s atrium space has a global scope, there’s an ongoing series of string quartet shows reflecting the organization’s original agenda. And all of these shows are free! The next one is with the brilliant Heath Quartet – whose latest album is an epic recording of the Bartok cycle – on March 22 at 7:30 PM, playing works by Haydn and Tschaikovsky. Get there early if you want a seat.