The Harlem Quartet, a Grammy Award-winning string quartet, wants to make classical music cool.
“We want to advance diversity in classical music,” said Ilmar Gavilan, the principal violinist of the quartet. “We try to place some classical and some non-classical music in each concert.”
By bringing in the music of 20th-century composers, and mixing in the classical greats with those not so well known, the group hopes to bring more listeners – young and old – to the genre.
The Harlem Quartet, a multicultural chamber group, will perform three shows starting Tuesday in the Chamber Music at the Barn’s summer concert series.
Since 2006, the quartet has traveled from its home base of New York City to France, South Africa and Panama, playing the works of Johannes Brahms and Ludwig van Beethoven along with contemporary composers like Benjamin Lees, Michael Abels, Chick Corea and Wynton Marsalis.
Gavilan, the son of Guido Gavilan, a noted composer and conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba, is one of the original members of the group. At 14, Gavilan won a competition and was invited to attend the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow, Russia. After graduating from this conservatory, this young prodigy attended the Reina Sofia School of Music in Spain and the Manhattan School of Music in New York City.
“I knew that if I wanted to keep developing as a musician I had to leave Cuba,” Gavilan said. “My mom went with me the first year; then I was on my own.”
Gavilan quickly became fluent in Russian, eventually moving to the U.S. and learning English as well. This globe-hopping, Cuban-born violinist views music as a universal language. He especially enjoys using music to teach young people about history and culture.
This year, the Harlem Quartet will be teaching a variety of Wichita-area string musicians at the Barn’s annual Northeast Area String Academy of Wichita and Bows at the Barn summer camps. The quartet will meet with the string academy on Monday evening and with the Bows camp on Wednesday and Thursday. The academy provides opportunities for black string students, and Bows at the Barn is open to any area string student. The Harlem Quartet will speak of career opportunities and will mentor these youths in technique.
“It is incredibly inspiring for these young musicians to spend time with successful, enthusiastic and imaginative chamber music performers,” said Catherine Consiglio, artistic director at the Barn.
The Harlem Quartet hopes its diversity – one black performer, one white performer and two Hispanic musicians – will show these youths that classical music is open to everyone, no matter race, ethnicity or sex.
“Through the eyes of an African-American student, they are great role models,” said Pam Lawson, assistant director of the Northeast Area String Academy. “This gives them (the students) an awareness of what they can do. We (minorities) have been underrepresented for so long. The Harlem Quartet definitely inspires the students.”
The quartet involves the students through movement and intellect. They always make the youngsters dance; by moving, the students feel the music and participate on a deeper level.
“I love teaching young people. That is usually my favorite thing,” Gavilan said. “The key is to involve them. We try to break it (the pieces) down and make them accessible. We talk about the time period the piece was written in, about the dress and the way it makes you feel.”
When performing for adults, the group continues to educate. They speak of the composers, the history and sometimes the music.
Although they have played worldwide, members of this noted quartet are excited about playing here. The Barn, with lilies, dogwoods, wooden bridges and a pond, is a magical place for an intimate concert that will feature Walter Piston’s String Quartet, Chick Corea’s “Adventures of Hippocrates,” Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train” and Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in F major. The Mendelssohn and Corea pieces are recorded on the group’s latest album, “Visionary,” released in May.
“The quartet appears because of a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Arts,” said Consiglio. “The quartet’s energy and love of music is infectious.”