The Harlem Quartet took the stage of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation by storm as they played the opener of Asheville Chamber Music‘s 67th series to a packed house. Their program was typical of what they usually program – some traditional “tried and true” works with music of various cultures and genres. Their mission of outreach to local schools, with visits, workshops, and coaching sesssions, was evident in the composition of the house, in which there was a whole bank of enthusiastic young people who’d turned out to hear them.

The Harlem Quartet was founded in 2006 by the Sphinx Organization, a national nonprofit “dedicated to building diversity in classical music and providing access to music education in underserved communities.” The rest, as they say, is history, as this ensemble has rocketed to world acclaim through their Grammy-winning recordings and live performances. The artists are Cuban violinist Ilmar Gavilan, American violinist Melissa White, Puerto Rican violist Jaime Amador, and American cellist Felix Umansky. Their bios may be read here.

The concert opener was William Bolcom‘s Three Rags for String Quartet (1989). Bolcom (b.1938) became interested in the music of Scott Joplin in the 1970s and composed a number of rags, some adapted for string quartet from his piano scores and some originally for string quartet. The sectional nature of the musical form allowed for a time in the spotlight for each of the players. “Poltergeist,” a dissonance-powered but humorous romp, showcased the ensemble’s elasticity. “Graceful Ghost,” a haunting remembrance of the composer’s father, featured some gorgeous playing in the viola and cello, with full chordal sections from the group. “Incineratorag” was pure energy unleashed, with melodies unfolding at warp speed, occasionally to the furious plucking in the second violin like a banjo clamoring to be part of the mix.

Next was Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s String Quartet in E-flat (1834), her only composition in this genre. Eclipsed by her younger and more famous brother Felix and remaining largely unpublished during her lifetime, she was nonetheless a composer of merit whose works are slowly finding their way to our ears. This four-movement little gem, only 20 minutes in length, encapsulates some of her striking originality. The opening movement is a surprise, a slow Adagio ma non troppo of deep seriousness and emotional depth, followed by a light Allegretto of the “elfin scherzo” character made famous by Felix. Still, this second movement retains some weight and heft unique to her. The Romanze is a full-throated melodic third movement which is expressively extroverted in its declamations, approaching a public lamentation. The final Allegro molto vivace is a barn burner featuring storming sixteenth-note passagework which is passed around like a hot potato. The quartet dug in, rendering this thrilling closer in impeccable musical style.

Just before intermission came “Cuarteto en Guaguancó,” a stunning, single-movement work which was composed in 2005 for chamber orchestra and arranged for string quartet in 2016. Its stylistic elements were explained by first violinist Gavilan, son of composer Guido Gavilan (b.1944). The piece stems from both a dance and a distinctive rhythmic pattern, the clave, which is a rhythmic ostinato with a characteristic delay on the third clave accent. The result is what is known as a rumba clave pattern, the rhythmic underpinning for the Cuban rumba style. The piece’s melodic style harkens back to the melodic chanting of the West African Yoruba tradition. The work, catchy and soulful, captured the original drumming effects through rhythmic tappings on various parts of each instrument.

After intermission, the sole work was Brahms’s String Quartet No. 3 in B-flat, Op. 67. Written in the summer of 1875, it shrugged off the seriousness of his two previous quartets in minor and adapted a cheerful, relatively light-hearted (for Brahms) demeanor. In the opening Vivace, Brahms sounds like a serious-composer-let-out-of-jail. The music proceeds without showy passagework, but leans instead on rhythmic sleights of hand. The ensemble blended beautifully throughout this movement. The second, an Andante that moved right along, showcased some of the most gorgeous melodic writing (and playing) of the entire quartet, which was punctuated occasionally by some arresting, dotted rhythmic figures. The third movement Agitato – Trio – Coda, was Brahms with a hangover – its lurching, off-kilter, and incomplete, searching phrases were some of the most highly original writing of all. Also unusual was the prominence of the viola parts, whose long melodies were played superbly by Amador. The quartet ended with a theme and variations movement, based on some unusual harmonies and recollections of the theme of movement one. The ensemble maintained extraordinary intensity throughout this glorious finale.

The encore was the gilding on the lily, as the foursome played Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train” to an excited crowd who couldn’t have been more thrilled to hear this jazz standard. What a night!