The chatter and enthusiasm of the young audience in North Carolina Central University‘s B.N. Duke Auditorium was infectious — so much so that professors walked the aisles with guarded looks. Then proudly announcing that the Harlem Quartet was the “first guest string quartet to perform in the history of the North Carolina Central University,” we were greeted by Dr. Timothy Holley, Associate Professor of Music. There was another first — this Lyceum Series event was the first 2011 concert of the September Prelude Chamber Music Festival of the Triangle. Paul Wiancko, the affable cellist of the Harlem Quartet, introduced himself, along with the other players. And throughout the concert, the quartet members engaged the audience with questions and answers, sprinkled with humor while including a few tidbits of music history. There was nothing light-weight about the program, however. With works by Borodin, Prokofiev, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, Chick Corea, and Wynton Marsalis, there was plenty to challenge everyone.

Wiancko spoke about Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004), conductor, co-founder of the Symphony of the New World, and distinguished composer, describing him as one whose music “embodies the spirit of American Romanticism.” Opening with an ideal selection, they performed the spirited third movement of Sinfonietta No. 1 for Strings (1954). It works splendidly for quartet — classically shaped and with lyrical melodies, driving moto perpetuo rhythm, and gentle undercurrents of jazz, it sounds truly American. Playing with assurance and seasoned ensemble, the Harlem Quartet’s sound was warm and resonant. They communicated with the deftness of old friends.      

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) received a commission for his String Quartet No. 1 from the U.S. Library of Congress in 1930. He was not a string player, nor did he have a close friend to help him craft the piece, but it takes a string player to make sense of it. First violinist Ilmar Gavilán contrasted Prokofiev’s work with the darker compositions of Shostakovich, describing how the senior composer created characters when he drew up melodic lines and voices. I thought this was a brilliant explanation, and surely those characters leaped right off the page. At the same time, nothing was forced. The composition, one I have long admired, has just become a new favorite.

Juan-Miguel Hernandez demonstrated the viola and talked a bit about the role of each of the instruments. Violinist Melissa White talked about the formation of the group and introduced the String Quartet No. 2 in D by Alexander Borodin (1833-87). Another Russian composer, Borodin was the exemplar romantic and avid chamber musician who understood the inner workings of the genre including how to write gorgeous lines for cello. This piece illuminates beautiful tone, and it provided a splendid contrast.   

The quartet also played two Latin jazz-inspired movements — Quasi Tango and Quasi Fugue — from The Adventures of Hippocrates (2004) by Armando Anthony (Chick) Corea (b.1941), and they closed with the lively, foot-stomping “Rampart St. Row House Rag” from Wynton Marsalis’ At the Octoroon Balls (1995). Students rose to their feet with celebratory applause.

If there was a theme for the evening, I speculate it might be this: musicians and composers must be optimists by nature. We are a hopeful “bunch,” hopeful that music can change the world. Prokofiev and Shostakovich knew that Russians would one day see totalitarianism defeated. And Wynton Marsalis believes that all children deserve music education.

The Harlem Quartet has a mission — to take classical and new music to a wider audience that includes underserved communities and students. During this September Prelude, the ensemble visits Raleigh’s Ligon GT Magnet Middle School and, during a day-long Chapel Hill workshop that is part of the festival, offers a master class for adult amateur chamber musicians. A formal concert in UNC’s Memorial Hall and programs at Raleigh’s St. Ambrose Episcopal Church and in Fletcher Opera Theater round out the ensemble’s visit. Despite the weight of a weekend of remembrance, the young artists of the Harlem Quartet, the composers whose music was performed, and the students who heard it, bearing the hopes and dreams of a new generation, all embodied a spirit of optimism. This was an inspired performance.

For details of remaining concerts, see the sidebar.