The Kennedy Center’s Fortas Chamber Music series has sought for some years to expand its offerings beyond traditional classical programs, with mixed success. Some of the choices have felt lazy — going with the latest award winner or DownBeat darling rather than seeking out artists who can really connect with local audiences. But Monday’s concert of the Harlem Quartet with pianist-composer Aldo López-Gavilán was lively and engrossing, becoming stronger as it went along. López-Gavilán’s older brother is the string quartet’s first violinist, and the endearing banter between them all evening added to the fun.
The weakest offering came first — “The Adventures of Hippocrates,” a string quartet by Chick Corea. Although Corea has dabbled in classical music for many years — recording works of Mozart and Bartok, for example — his “formal” compositional efforts feel wan and uninvolved. The five movements drifted through templates such as waltz and tango, but the string writing was amateurish and the musical ideas never took wing.
Things improved considerably when López-Gavilán joined the group for a pair of jazz standards — “Night in Tunisia” and “Take the A Train” — and a danzon by the Cuban composer Abelardito Valdés called “Almendra.” There is an insoluble problem with string quartet arrangements of jazz; drums are irreplaceable in this music, and their absence will always be keenly felt (same with the bass, actually). But with the pianist anchoring the rhythm, there was still much to enjoy; each of the Harlem players can solo and riff, with violist Jaime Amador’s sophisticated and precise playing standing out.
After intermission, the group played five pieces by López-Gavilán (the fifth, offered as an encore, was called “Quick Notes”). He’s a terrific composer, with range, imagination and technique. Even though most of the numbers were arrangements, they displayed the only really successful piano/string synthesis of the concert. Some of the dreamier portions had a decidedly French feel — Saint-Saëns meets Legrand — and elsewhere the febrile Cuban rhythms were further refracted in surprising combinations, López-Gavilán’s superb pianism rocking the house as well.