The Harlem Quartet at the Library of Congress

Ilmar Gavilan, Desmond Neysmith, Melissa White and Juan-Miguel Hernandez.
Ilmar Gavilan, Desmond Neysmith, Melissa White and Juan-Miguel Hernandez. (By Tia Williams)
Saturday, December 20, 2008

Every year since 1936, the Library of Congress has commemorated the anniversary of Antonio Stradivari's death on Dec. 18. On Thursday night, the Harlem Quartet continued the tradition with a concert played on some of the master luthier's prized instruments in the library's collection. These musicians were brought together by the Sphinx Organization, which seeks to increase cultural diversity in the world of classical music.

The first half was centered on a rare performance of Walter Piston's third quartet, from 1947, with a natural approach to the shifting metrical patterns and clear handling of the pervasive counterpoint. Violist Juan-Miguel Hernandez drew the sweetest, most sonorous tone from the "Cassavetti" Stradivarius in his hands for the evening. In Joaquín Turina's "Oración del Torero," the amuse-gueule that preceded the Piston, the four musicians produced a warm, muted sound for the toreador's prayer and a rougher, edgier one for the more raucous sounds echoing from the arena. First violinist Ilmar Gavilan lost his burnish in the upper register, proving that a Stradivarius such as the "Betts" violin, like a thoroughbred horse, will not necessarily provide a smooth ride for just anyone.

The second half was devoted to Schubert's String Quintet in C, D. 956, with Carter Brey, the principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic, joining on the second cello part. Brey brought some much-needed stability to the lower half of the sonority, galvanizing the somewhat erratic cellist Desmond Neysmith, who tended to rush nervously. The rhythmic flux undermined the encore piece at the end the first half: Paul Chihara's arrangement of Billy Strayhorn's "Take the 'A' Train."

-- Charles T. Downey

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