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Harlem Quartet: good to the last note

The UVM Lane Series, long known for introducing Vermont audiences to the best proponents of a variety of musical genres, scored a big one by bringing the Harlem Quartet to the Redstone Recital Hall last week. As it turned out, the quartet lived up to the sobriquet that Natalie Neuert gave them during her introduction: "The smilingest quartet ever met." The musicians lived up to that introduction throughout the program, even when they were engaged in serious work.

The members of the quartet- Ilmar Gavilan, violin, Melissa White, violin, Juan-Miguel Hernandez, viola, Desmond Neysmith, cello-are sponsored by the Sphinx Competition, a Detroit-based nonprofit group. The foundation matched them for the purposes of a single concert sometime ago. The members enjoyed one another's company so much they decided to continue to perform together.

The program included quartets by Ravel and Walter Piston and shorter works by Wynton Marsalis, Joaquin Turina, Billy Strayhorn and Lopes-Gavil n (the violinist's father).

The Ravel was exquisite, an impressionistic landscape of sounds that no one understood when the quartet was written-except Debussy.

As with most Ravel works, the precision of the craftsmanship is like the famous Faberg eggs; we heard a precise rendering of that craftsmanship with all the moods and emotions that Ravel packed so carefully into the notes written on the page. The quartets playing of the Fourth Movement, written with a 5/8 time signature, was so skillful that one was not aware of the rather potentially lumpy sound of such a rhythm (if you're a jazz fan, think of Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" to imagine what it might sound like). The players were called back for bows several times.

The quartet by Walter Piston is in some ways the direct opposite of Ravel: it is direct, driven; when the magical final cadence is reached, the unison pitch is a revelation in itself. The Harlem Quartet is blessed with technical ability; its interpretative abilities and general musicality are way above the norm. The feeling for Ravel and for Piston did great service to both. It's like walking in a museum and moving from the Impressionist wing into one of so called Ashcan school of American art. In this case, the aural transition was nowhere so abrupt as a visual transition might be. The quartet played with great strength and with singleness the purpose that was as clear as the final note.

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