Quartet Driving Diversity in Classical Music

Performances and Artists

While the Harlem String Quartet can execute many a complex classical masterpiece – and has even done so alongside virtuosos such as Itzhak Perlman - those usually aren’t pieces the group performs when facing an audience of kids.

In those cases, the musicians usually go for Duke Ellington or Billy Strayhorn, says violinist Ilmar Gavilan.

“We make (classical music) more attractive by including repertoire that is better for someone who has never heard Shostakovich before. You can’t possibly break in with that,” says Gavilan, who performs with fellow quartet members violinist Melissa White, violist Jaime Amador and cellist Felix Umansky. “You need to go in smoother, with something like ‘Take the A Train.’”

Especially when trying to bring a love of classical music to wide-ranging demographics.

“We include music written by minority composers because it speaks to minority audiences,” Gavilan says.

The Grammy-winning Harlem String Quartet has played a mixed repertoire of classical and jazz around the world, including for international dignitaries and even President Barack Obama at the White House.

Their top-level performances are only part of their efforts, however.

Created in 2006 by the Sphinx Organization that promotes diversity in the arts, the quartet has an ongoing mission to advance diversity in classical music by performing for inner-city children across the U.S.

No small task.

Classical music is not known for diversity, Gavilan explains. He has heard the common belief that the genre is only intended for people of specific heritage.

“It is a stereotype that’s based in reality. (Classical music) was born in Europe,” he says. “It’s not a strange thing that people of European descent have a slightly more direct tradition with it.”

The quartet aims to shake up that tradition, though.

Touring across the nation and the world, the group follows many performances for adult audiences with interactive concerts at local schools. In between playing short excerpts of classical and jazz pieces, the musicians explain classical music and how to recognize compositional elements like a canon.

Most of the children have never heard classical music before, Gavilan says.

“They get very excited,” he says. “Often they even dance.”

The quartet also showcases diversity in its group members, including Gavilan, a native of Cuba, as well as Puerto Rican Amador and African American White.

Lately the group has also included performances with Gavilan’s brother, pianist Aldo Lopez-Gavilan, who lives in Cuba and has only recently been able to collaborate as a result of improved U.S.-Cuban relations.

“I think it gives more credibility for what we stand for,” Gavilan says of the group members’ diverse backgrounds. “(The kids) can sense it.”

The quartet’s in-school performances also help prevent classical music from becoming an endangered species, he adds. Budget cuts have resulted in many axed music programs, leaving few other opportunities to expose students to the arts.

“For classical music to survive in just the next 50 years, it’s important to include (outreach to) the inner cities,” he says. “Orchestras are shrinking across the country.”

Many children have chosen to learn instruments after seeing the group’s performances, he says. One boy even joined them onstage to play a simple song at a later performance.

Gavilan encourages other adults to help promote classical music among children.

“There are many creative ways to do it. For instance, you can put on the classical radio station in the background at school during recess,” he says. “It doesn’t cost any money, but it raises awareness. It just takes a desire to do it.”

Harlem String Quartet performed in October of 2016 in Myron’s Cabaret Jazz.