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Despite woes, Harlem Quartet still plays on

The quartet was ready to take off, before it threatened to come apart

First of two parts. Part two will appear Monday.

Paul Wiancko, the cellist, broke the news in an e-mail.

It was Sept. 14, 2011, and everything seemed possible. The Harlem Quartet was entering its second and final year in New England Conservatory’s prestigious professional string quartet training program.

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It’s an honor just to be chosen for the program, which selects one talented young quartet every two years and polishes it for the big time. NEC’s quartets have taken top prizes at international competitions, signed coveted recording contracts, and even won a Grammy Award.

That’s particularly remarkable, as performing in a string quartet is one of the toughest challenges in the music world. To be successful, musicians must not only play with the highest level of individual brilliance, they must master the sensitive balances and dynamics of the chamber repertoire and the equally sensitive dynamics of interpersonal relationships. They have to get along, and they have to stay together.

Last fall, the Harlem Quartet seemed well on its way. The ensemble, which plays both classical music and jazz, had performed for President Obama at the White House, on NBC’s “Today” show, and with Itzhak Perlman at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It had scored a high-profile gig at the Montreal Jazz Festival and a tour with pianist Chick Corea and vibraphonist Gary Burton. With the blessing of the Leonard Bernstein estate, it was recording a new arrangement of “West Side Story” with the Chicago Sinfonietta.

Then Wiancko clicked “send.”

“I have a heavy heart when I tell you that I’ve come to the conclusion that I must leave The Harlem Quartet,” he wrote. “The best way I can describe my reasoning is this: when I try to imagine my future a few years from now, I can’t imagine myself in the quartet.”

The news crushed violinists Ilmar Gavilán and Melissa White. They were ready for their next professional leap. Now they would be scrambling just to keep the group going. Wiancko’s replacement would have to be special: a superb player of both classical music and jazz, willing to commit years to the unique challenges of quartet life.

As they struggled, violist Juan Miguel Hernandez, the third founding member, kept quiet. He hadn’t said anything about his own doubts. Wiancko’s e-mail provided an opening. After a rehearsal two days later, Hernandez spoke up.

He said he planned to leave the quartet, too, and move to California. He did make a concession: While Wiancko wanted out by Christmas, he would stay as long as necessary.

In the classical world, the old joke goes: Being in a string quartet is like a four-way marriage with all of the bad stuff, and none of the good.

This felt like a divorce.

Finding their destiny

They began with a mission. The Harlem Quartet wouldn’t simply make music. It would serve as a model: four minorities showing younger players that they could crack into the largely white classical world.

The quartet was formed in 2006 by Sphinx, a Detroit-based organization devoted to encouraging blacks and Latinos to enter the classical field. Gavilán, White, Hernandez, and cellist Desmond Neysmith had each won performance awards in the nonprofit’s competitions. They were meant to be a Sphinx supergroup. In 2010, Wiancko replaced Neysmith, who returned to his native England.

The chemistry in the group was undeniable. Gavilán, with a laugh as natural and easy as the coconut palms swaying in the breeze of his native Cuba, was the cheery, absent-minded professor. White, a former child prodigy who won her Sphinx award at just 16, was the group’s unofficial manager, the level-headed organizer behind the scenes. Hernandez was the restless, wandering spirit, the group’s heartthrob and most emotional player, while Wiancko was the quiet, moody artist with an unexpected wit.

Onstage, they were one. And they didn’t follow the rules.

The Harlem Quartet members speak to their audience before playing. They stress that it’s OK to applaud between movements — a no-no in the classical world. It is hard not to feel the intensity as sweat pours off Gavilán, the first violinist, performing Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden.” It is also hard not to smile as Hernandez, reveling in Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train,” joyfully dances as he pulls off an energetic solo.

Forced by his partners’ declarations last fall to reckon with his future, Gavilán never considered quitting. Playing with a quartet was his destiny.

He had tried going the symphony route, studying with New York Philharmonic concertmaster Glenn Dicterow. But at 37, he knew what he wanted — even if that might mean a financial sacrifice.

The Harlem Quartet’s members each earned about $40,000 last year. In the Philharmonic, player salaries start at about $140,000. The artistic and emotional compromises, though, would be too much.

“I’m actually heard when I play,” Gavilán said. “I make most of my own schedule. I’m able to collaborate with whomever I choose. I just feel more fulfilled.”

For her part, White needed time to consider the losses. Normally so calm, the second violinist felt panicked.

“I couldn’t imagine going through a search and learning process with two new people,” she said.

Then White thought about how much she loved playing the music, which ranged from Mozart to Wynton Marsalis. She thought of the younger musicians the Harlem Quartet had worked with over the years. There were a lot of successful quartets in the world. None were made up of people of color.

“I realized,” White said, “that the Harlem Quartet was bigger than the individuals who made it up.”

‘A special breed’

You travel in the same car, share the same hotels, eat the same meals. For years. Then, if you’re one of the best in the world, you might actually earn enough to keep playing.

That’s the reality of being in a quartet.

The string quartet is classical music’s version of a rock band — a dynamic that has led to some of the most celebrated musical collaborations in the world, and some of the messiest breakups. But in a classical quartet, players can’t just pick up a Fender and learn a few bar chords. They’ve usually studied for years at the best schools, then worked to blend an often complicated combination of egos. There’s no conductor to settle scores.

“Siamese quadruplets,” is how Guarneri Quartet violinist Arnold Steinhardt once described a string quartet.

Cellist Paul Katz, the NEC faculty member who founded the quartet program, knows the challenges well. For more than 25 years, he was in the celebrated Cleveland Quartet.

“A string quartet is a special breed,” said Katz. “Most people are looking for the best job and money. A string quartet player is willing to imagine a life of lower income and maybe time away from family life because they love the art form.”

In picking the Harlem Quartet, Katz was drawn as much by the ensemble’s mission as by its accomplishments.

“In terms of technical level of mastery, they weren’t up to the level of other groups we had taken,” he said. “I got excited because I thought of what they could do for their own people. I thought the classical world needs more black and Latin players.”

The quartet’s embrace of jazz also set them apart. After Corea heard them play at a tribute concert, he hired them to record and tour with his group and Burton. The collaboration has taken them to the Tanglewood Music Center and Symphony Hall this year.

“That’s part of the challenge in string quartets,” said Burton, the now-retired executive vice president of Berklee College of Music. “How do you distinguish yourself from the other groups? Thing is, classical musicians have not been taught how to swing. They can.”

In the spotlight

Last February, Katz met the Harlem Quartet at Jordan Hall before an important recital. This was meant to be their final performance with NEC. Some of the school’s heaviest hitters were expected to attend.

He listened to the last movement of the Mozart String Quartet No. 15 in D-minor (K. 421), then approached the stage.

“You’re playing the 16th note too quick,” he said. “Just take your time. I want you to feel natural.”

They tried again. This time, he was happier. “Just gorgeous,” he said. “Wow.”

It was a big night, and Katz wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The quartet’s first year at NEC, which began in the fall of 2010, had been impressive.

“They came prepared, and there was tremendous growth,” Katz explained later. “Second year, because Paul’s leaving, it has changed priorities. They’ve learned less repertoire. Full disclosure. I felt they were not making the kind of progress I’d hoped for.”

Backstage, Gavilán warmed up while the others picked at their dinners, takeout from Panera Bread. White changed into a glamorous blue dress, while the men wore suits. The crowd filed in. There was Donald Weilerstein and his wife, Vivian, who runs NEC’s professional piano trio training program; violist Roger Tapping, chairman of NEC’s chamber music program and former member of the Takacs Quartet; the celebrated violist Kim Kashkashian; and NEC president Tony Woodcock.

It was showtime.

From the stage, Hernandez hailed NEC as “the best music school in the country,” eliciting cheers. Then, with a deep breath, they began. They played Mozart, Schubert, and a piece by contemporary composer Judith Lang Zaimont. In an encore of “Take the A Train,” three of them stood and soloed to the audience.

They were cooking, switching effortlessly between lightning-fast leads and lilting counterpoint, all of it driven by Wiancko’s pulsing bass.

“Beautiful,” Katz said backstage later to Gavilán. “You were a true artist.”

The energy of a team

Gavilán had taken a winding path to NEC.

He was born in Cuba to a musical family. His father became conductor of the Havana Symphony, and his mother taught piano. At 14, he won a competition and began four years at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory.

In Russia, he lived in a dorm infested with cockroaches. He ate mainly mashed potatoes and ground meat, and lost weight. Musically, though, he grew immeasurably.

“You have to experience certain pain and certain loneliness to understand these [composers],” he said. “You cannot turn to video games or a beautiful countryside. It makes you turn within.”

Gavilán eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he played Cuban dance music and jazz to pay the rent. There, he learned to improvise. “It taught me how to groove in the Latin way,” he said.

White, a decade younger than Gavilán at 28, was just 6 when she started playing violin. Growing up in Lansing, Mich., she was inspired by seeing Perlman on “Sesame Street.” Even though nobody in her house played — her father was an accountant, her mother a school guidance counselor — White scored a slot at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

Initially, she wanted to be in an orchestra. She had run track and cross country and appreciated the energy of being part of a team. She never wanted to be a soloist: too lonely and vulnerable.

With the Harlem Quartet, she grew to love her musical brothers. Gavilán was her mentor as fellow violinist. Hernandez, 27, with his love life often in tatters, his temperament tested by his dislike of the road, brought a sense of rambunctious fun to the group. And then there was Wiancko, 29, an enigmatic loner who could leave her in stitches with a dead-on impression.

But White, after her brief moment of doubt, realized that anyone could be replaced.

They just had to find the right players.

Making a connection

One Saturday morning, the Harlem Quartet gathered in the lobby of a hotel in Springfield, Ohio.

The trip had been a challenge. They had a gig that night at Antioch College, and a college benefactor had hosted them at her home. But White’s bed was too hard and Hernandez’s too small, the tub didn’t drain, and one of the bedrooms was infested with bees. Hence, the hotel.

It was there that they met the cellist they hoped would replace Wiancko.

Matthew Zalkind, a student at the University of Michigan, had driven four hours to audition. Several other applicants hadn’t panned out. Either they were not good enough, or they weren’t willing to sign on for the long haul.

Zalkind wore jeans, Chuck Taylors, and an untucked button-down shirt. Musically, his pedigree was impeccable: Juilliard. Collaborations with acclaimed pianists Richard Goode and Jonathan Biss. Just weeks later, Zalkind would take first place in the Washington International Competition for Strings.

One thing Zalkind was not: a minority.

That’s a decision Gavilán and White had made during their search. They were no longer defining the Harlem Quartet by skin color.

After a short drive, the three quartet members plus Zalkind took seats in the cavernous living room of the benefactor who had hosted them the first night.

“I was shocked when I saw the list,” Zalkind said later of the group’s repertoire. “I’ve never played any of it.”

With their first selection — Ravel — the connection was immediate. The players smiled as music filled the room. Afterward Zalkind quietly exhaled a “wow.”

Hernandez clapped. Gavilán offered praise. The tension had left the room.

“We can play for fun or just have brunch,” said White.

They played more and chatted. About Corea and the Montreal Jazz Festival. About mutual friends. They played Mozart.

“I really like that piece,” said Zalkind. “It’s not played enough. It’s dark.”

“His wife, she was giving birth during this,” said Gavilán. “And back then, she could die.”

They played “Death and the Maiden.”

“I just saw the Hagen Quartet in Montreal,” said Zalkind, “the way the first violist was sliding between every note.”

“Schubert’s way too intense to play in this mood,” said Hernandez, as they continued bonding. “But this is going really well.”

“That was beautiful,” said Gavilán.

They launched into Marsalis’s “At the Octoroon Balls,” with its ragtime rhythms, jagged time shifts, and joyous, sliding licks. Gavilán smiled during the quirkiest breaks. They shouted “Yeah!” when Zalkind hammered off a blistering solo.

“Really good playing,” said Gavilán. “Good reading, too.”

The Ellington came last. Hernandez danced in Zalkind’s direction during his solo.

“You guys are a riot,” said Zalkind. “That’s awesome.”

Outside, as he headed to the car, out of earshot, Hernandez admitted how he was feeling.

“He’s good,” he said. “I want him.”

Then a pause.

“This is when I get nervous.”

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.
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