Harlem Quartet


The Story

Who's Who

Harlem Quartet

Harlem Quartet is made up of two violinists, a viola player, and a cellist. The quartet first got together in 2006, and although some of the members of the quartet have changed, the group’s focus has not. Since the beginning, the quartet has tried to bring diversity to classical music and show listeners—all listeners, but especially students—that classical music is alive, meaningful, and relevant to their lives.

The quartet has accomplished this mission by collaborating with minority musicians and composers from all backgrounds, especially orchestras and jazz virtuosos (basically jazz geniuses). In addition to being an award-winning chamber ensemble, the players are accomplished solo artists, chamber-music members, and orchestra guests and members.

Before they head out on stage, let’s meet the individual musicians: Ilmar Gavilan, violin, was born in Cuba and began studying violin as a young boy, launching an accomplished career. Music from his family and native country have influenced his musical interests and passion for jazz and Afro-Cuban music. He often performs with his younger brother, pianist Aldo Lopez-Gavilan, and music composed by his father. He was a founding member of the quartet.

Melissa White, violin, is another original member of the ensemble. Her skill and study have given her experiences soloing and collaborating with distinguished artists all over the world. When she lost her motivation to play as a teenager, it was teaching music to young kids that helped her rekindle her love of music, an experience that now helps her relate to young people at her concerts who might not have any musical background.

Jaime Amador, viola, was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico where he began his musical studies at a young age. He has trained, performed, and taught all over the world, and is dedicated to educating a new generation of musicians, especially through outreach programs that bring music to societies that need healing.

Felix Umansky, cello, is the newest member of the group, after a career that has given him opportunities to perform in some of the world’s most prestigious concert halls. He hopes to bring as much variety of classical music to as many people as he can, and is known to set up “shop” playing everywhere from coffee shops to libraries to performing on the street.

So, What's Going On?

What do you think about when you picture a string quartet? Maybe serene, gentle music wafting through a stuffy audience in a formal setting? Well, Harlem Quartet wants to shake that image up. They’re busy bringing a new attitude to music listening by mixing classical music with jazz standards and Latin pieces by fresh, new composers to create a cutting-edge sound.

First, the basics. What’s a string quartet? Like any string quartet, Harlem Quartet has four string instruments: two violins, a viola, and a cello. The violins are the smallest and highest pitched of the instruments, sometimes (but not always) playing the melody. The viola is a little bigger than the violin, with a deeper, mid-range sound—kind of like an alto singer in a choir. The cello is the lowest instrument in the quartet with a deep, rich sound. You’ll notice that while the violins and viola are perched on the shoulders of the musicians, the cello stands upright against its player. All four instruments are played by either pulling a bow across the strings or plucking the strings.

A string quartet is called a chamber ensemble. Each instrument plays its own part, not like a symphony orchestra where many instruments play the same part. String quartets were often written by classical composers like Mozart and Beethoven who used a traditional form similar to a symphony with four movements (sections) with different tempos based on a melody (called a theme). So, where do jazz and Latin music come in? Jazz is music that originated in southern parts of the United States by black Americans influenced by the work songs of slaves. It’s partly planned, partly improvised, and uses rhythms and syncopations that make it exciting to hear. Latin music, from Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries in Europe and South America, includes styles like salsa, rumba, merengue, and bossa nova. And both jazz and Latin music are influenced by African music.

Harlem Quartet originally branched out into jazz to make their concerts more interesting for the students in their audiences. But what began as a tool to get kids involved became a passion, and the quartet now says that jazz has helped shape who they are.

During the performance, Harlem Quartet will play different kinds of music: movements from classical string quartets, jazz tunes, and Latin works. The members of the quartet will introduce each piece and talk about its background, structure, and explain what to listen for. They’ll do some of the comparing between pieces for you, but you should pay attention to what you hear, see, and feel, too. At the end of the concert, you’ll have an opportunity for a Q&A. What would you like to ask the musicians? Perhaps their life as professional musicians, or how they got started playing a string instrument, or what inspires them as artists.


Check This Out...

  • A quartet is made up of just four instruments: two violins, a viola, and a cello. Listen for the individual instruments, but also listen for times when there’s just one “whole” sound. Are there any times when the sound seems “bigger” than just four instruments?

  • The Harlem Quartet plays classical, jazz, and Latin music. What sounds do these types of music have in common? What differences? Listen for similarities and differences in rhythm, form (do melodies or themes repeat?), and even feelings you get from the music. Does it surprise you that the same four instruments can play such different sounding music?

  • There are two ways for a string instrument to make sound: bowing and plucking, (called pizzicato, or when the strings are plucked by the finger instead of using the bow), with bowing being more common in classical music. How do these sounds differ? Which instrument plucks the most often (hint: it’s usually playing the bass, or lowest, line)? What is happening in the music when the musicians pluck?

Think About...

Think About This...

  • The Harlem Quartet says that jazz music has helped shape their identity as a group who brings classical music to young people, especially in African American communities. What do you think? Does jazz either help interest you in classical music or help you relate to it better? And what about Latin music? Does the Latin sound bolster an interest in classical music for you?

  • Part of the mission of the quartet is to bring a new sound to students. What new sounds do you hear when listening to their music? How do the new sounds compare to the music you typically listen to? Do they change how you think about music at all?

  • How does listening to the quartet’s music live in a concert hall differ from listening to a recording? Which do you prefer?

Take Action: Be Inspired

The Harlem Quartet’s mission is to bring different types of music to young people who haven’t had the chance to experience how music can transform them. By incorporating works by composers with African American and Latin roots, they hope to inspire kids, especially those students from diverse communities. The members of the quartet are inspired by lots of different things: by their families, by the music of their home countries, by teaching, and by sharing the power of music in healing.

What inspires you? Maybe it’s music, or poetry, or visual art. Perhaps it’s something intangible like your family, or mentoring younger kids. How do you share what inspires you with others? Snap a picture or take a video of your inspiration and post it to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Snapchat, or any other platform. Make sure if other people are part of what inspires you that you have their permission to include them in your post. Then, tag five friends and ask them to share their inspiration.

Use #beinspired as your hashtag.


N00b Guide to Classical Music

So…What is Classical Music Anyway?

New to classical music? Or instrumental music in general? It can seem overwhelming when you have no clue what’s going on, but we’ve got you covered.

(If you’re already a fan of classical music, skip this and move on to the next section.)

Classical music is sometimes thought of as “serious music,” but it’s so much more than that. It comes from a Western (meaning countries in Europe, not Western like a cowboy) tradition of music that has lots of rules and conventions. Classical music gets its name from the Classical period (roughly 1775–1825) when musicians including Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven wrote and defined musical forms for symphony (full orchestra), concerto (one or more principle instruments with full orchestra), and sonata (for one instrument and often keyboard). But when we talk about classical music today, it usually includes music written over hundreds of years and with lots of variety. That alone can make it hard to define.

Just to review: Classical music (capital “C”) equals music written in the Classical period while classical music (lowercase “c”) is the common term for music written in a classical style, from medieval times to the present. For as broad a category as classical music represents, it does have some fairly distinct characteristics. It follows rules—rules about the order and form of the music, about what notes and chords sound good together, and a bunch of other rules. It’s usually played by instruments that you’d find from the four “families” of an orchestra: woodwinds, brass, strings, percussion, and even voices perform classical music. Typically, classical music is written down and the instruments play exactly what is written, unlike other types of music which use improvisation. (Yup, like jazz.)

One of the best ways to learn about classical music is to listen to it. YouTube or Pandora is you best friend there. Want to learn even more about classical music? Check out some of these links:

Get Into Classical
A beginner’s guide to classical music

Introduction to Classical Music
Everything you ever wanted to know about classical music, composers, and history, divided into chapters

Or visit our Related Resources (to the right of this page)


Nerd Guide to Classical Music

(If you’ve never listened to classical music before, skip this for now.)

For those who already know their way around the orchestra.

It’s not just orchestra geeks who enjoy a good symphony or chamber concert, plenty of non-musicians do, too. If you fall into that category, there’s an endless amount to learn about classical music. From music history, to theory, to playing and composing on your own—the deeper you get into classical music, the deeper you’ll want to go.

If you know the basics and want to dive deeper, or want to learn to play or compose music, here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Listen as much as you can. And then listen some more. Seriously, nothing teaches you more about classical music than your ears. Start with a piece you’re familiar with. Find a musician to give you listening tips, or look up an online listening guide. Get really familiar with the music’s form, instruments, key, theme, and composer. Then branch out from there. Some say you don’t really know a piece of music until you’ve listened to it five times, so keep listening.
  • Compare and contrast. Use YouTube or a listening library to find recordings of some of the same music you heard today. How do other groups (chamber ensembles or orchestras) perform the music differently? Listening to different arrangements, instrumentations, or interpretations of the same piece of music will build your understanding of classical music.
  • Learn an instrument. As great as listening to music is, something about playing a piece can completely change how you relate to it. There are tons of instruments to choose from—find one that appeals to you and give it a go. Try to find a teacher who can guide you toward great works to get started on. And guess what? You got it—listening will help you play better, too.
  • Study music history. History? What is this, a homework assignment? No, but learning music history will help you appreciate the evolution of classical music over time. You’ll see how music was composed and valued in its culture, and better understand how it relates to life and music today.

For more information on expanding your love of classical music or for pointers on how to get started or go deeper as a musician, try out these links:

Open Yale Courses: MUSI 112: Listening to Music
Open Yale courses offer links to recorded lectures for students interested in getting serious about music.

Classic FM
A music lover’s guide to everything classical, from recordings to articles to concerts and events.

Or visit our Related Resource (to the right of this page)

Adult Guide

Parents and Teachers: We've Got You Covered

If you’re an adult accompanying kids to this performance and you’re not quite sure what’s going on, we’ve got you covered. It’s just fine if you’re feeling a little lost. Maybe you’re not sure which four instruments are in a string quartet (violin, violin, viola, cello, just so you know), or maybe you’re a little confused about how jazz and Latin music fit into the big picture.

No problem. Here are a few basics to help you guide and discuss today’s performance with your kids:

The Harlem Quartet was named for the New York City neighborhood known as Harlem, home to the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. During that time, Harlem became a beacon of hope when many African Americans from the South moved north seeking better opportunities. The quartet aims to bring classical music not only to schools in Harlem but across the world, using the cultural renaissance that Harlem represents for African Americans and young people everywhere.

Alright, you’re ready to hear Harlem Quartet.




Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor

Kenny Neal
Manager, Digital Education Resources

Photo by Amy Schroeder

The Fortas Chamber Music Concerts are supported by generous contributors to the Abe Fortas Memorial Fund, and by a major gift to the fund from the late Carolyn E. Agger, widow of Abe Fortas.

This performance is made possible by the Kimsey Endowment; The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation; and the U.S. Department of Education.

Major support for educational programs at the Kennedy Center is provided by David and Alice Rubenstein through the Rubenstein Arts Access Program.

Kennedy Center education and related artistic programming is made possible through the generosity of the National Committee for the Performing Arts and the President’s Advisory Committee on the Arts.

Related Resources

Cuesheet Performance Guide Archive

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