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Harlem Quartet’s long search gathers an intensity

Many twists on the path to finding the right musicians and holding onto them

Second of two parts.

He said no?

As all bad news seems to, Matthew Zalkind’s decision arrived in an e-mail.

Melissa White had been thinking the Harlem Quartet’s crisis was over. After searching for months, her group, in its final year of residency in New England Conservatory’s prestigious professional string quartet training program, had finally found a cellist with the rare range of skills required to replace the departing Paul Wiancko. Their musical family would now be complete.

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Zalkind’s audition, before a concert in Ohio last March, had been a smashing success. There was obvious chemistry with the quartet, which plays both classical music and jazz. And the performance that evening seemed to seal it. Zalkind, a boyishly youthful player pursuing hisdoctorate, watched the Harlem Quartet seduce the audience at Antioch College with a program that stretched from the dark intensity of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” to the jagged ragtime of Wynton Marsalis’s “At the Octoroon Balls.”

From his perch on the balcony, Zalkind made eye contact with the group’s musical leader, the gregarious Cuban violinist Ilmar Gavilán. He chuckled along with the audience when the quartet’s members showed they could really swing, standing to trade off solo riffs in Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train.”

How could he say no?

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Two days later, White opened her in-box.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for all of you, and it would be a privilege and an honor to play in the Harlem Quartet,” Zalkind wrote. “I know that you’re looking for a cellist that will give you a long term, serious commitment. . . . I don’t think I can be that person, and I’m sorry.”

White called Gavilán. They were baffled. Zalkind had said he was concerned he would not have time to finish his doctorate if he joined the Harlem Quartet.

They contemplated pushing Zalkind to reconsider. But Gavilán didn’t want to seem desperate.

“It’s like marriage,” said Gavilán, 38, a couple of weeks later. “If you propose and the person says no, you’re definitely desperate. We’re not offering a McDonald’s job. If we have to beg, maybe the job we’re offering is not that good.”

The job was actually one of great promise: a chance to play in an acclaimed, fast-rising ensemble. But the pressure to replace Wiancko was building. Meanwhile violist Juan Miguel Hernandez, a founding member of the group who had announced his own desire to leave, was getting frustrated with the wait.

He had promised to keep his plans a secret. The quartet feared that if booking agents learned their group was in flux, it would be hard to score concert dates.

In New York, where three of the group’s members live, commuting to the conservatory in Boston, Hernandez, 27, talked of how badly he wanted to move to Los Angeles. He did not like New York. He found it dirty, noisy, and expensive.

“After a stressful trip, I fly back here and it’s like, ‘Welcome to hell.’ ”

He rented a tiny room in an apartment shared by a handful of dancer friends. Barefoot and in sweatpants one morning, he wearily searched the kitchen for a bowl of cereal. Outside his window, machinery clanged as workers did road repairs.

“All I wish for is a stable place,” he said. “One of those condos or a spacious apartment where I can collect art. Have a wife. Have a dog. I don’t have the money to get my own real place. I don’t have a girlfriend. I have debts to pay off.”

Hernandez couldn’t contain his frustration. “I got into this group and it’s been great, but the thing is, the more things we have, the more I feel stuck,” he said. “Now all these projects outside the quartet are happening for me, all these dreams I had as a kid. They’re happening. And that dream didn’t include a permanent, same-person quartet.”

His projects included a group in which he’d croon Frank Sinatra songs, and a nonprofit that a wealthy friend in California was starting and wanted Hernandez to run.

“Seriously, I’m not going to do this the rest of my life,” he said.

He had begun to despise the travel. At 6 foot 4, his body didn’t fit in cramped cars and airplane seats. He couldn’t eat right. On the trip to Ohio, he stopped at a convenience store and bought a premade sandwich pocket, warmed in the microwave. A couple of hours later, he stood next to the group’s rented car, hunched over and throwing up.

White, 28, didn’t seem to mind her transient status. She had grown used to this life, a tiny figure hauling her suitcase up a flight of stairs to catch the 7 train back to Queens. There, she paid $675 a month to share an apartment with another musician. It was hardly a home, more just a place to stack her boxes. Why bother unpacking? In a recent month, White was home for six days.

For her, the Harlem Quartet was a mission. She knew how few examples there were of people of color in classical music. The New England Conservatory program had also been illuminating. Working with faculty violinist Miriam Fried, a member of the Mendelssohn String Quartet, she’d refined her playing as the group’s second violinist. That might mean creating a slightly brighter tone by playing closer to the bridge, or simply remembering to make eye contact. She had found her own voice to complement Gavilán’s daring and majestic sweeps.

That was the musical side. Off stage, White was the calm organizer, the peacemaker who helped group members find common ground and move on.

“I don’t like arguments,” she said. “I’ve always been the democratic one. There have only been a couple of times I’ve gotten mad, and those have been silent car rides.”

‘He’s not the guy’

On a warm afternoon in August, the Harlem Quartet sat on a stage in a barn in rural New York. They worked through a Chick Corea piece they were to perform that night, and it wasn’t going well. Ismar Gomes, the latest tryout for the open cellist position, struggled to meld with the group.

“Too slow,” said Gavilán, stopping and looking over at the cellist across from him.

They began to play, then stopped again.

“We lost the beat,” chipped in Hernandez. “Sorry,” said Gomes, looking down.

After Zalkind had rejected the quartet, they connected with Gomes. Again, there were great hopes. Young and enthusiastic, Gomes had a strong pedigree, having studied at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and played around the world. The trouble started when they begin to rehearse.

It was immediately clear that Gomes hadn’t mastered the Harlem Quartet’s basic repertoire. They felt he hadn’t practiced properly; he felt the quartet didn’t give him enough time to rehearse with them. And jazz frankly scared him. Gomes was about Beethoven and Mozart. He struggled to connect with the Corea piece.

The quartet had already decided to hire someone else to substitute for Wiancko on an upcoming tour with Corea and Burton. Now they had to get through this night.

As Gavilán tried to salvage the Corea piece, he stopped, he started, he rolled his eyes, he smiled weakly as if in surrender.

Nobody had told Gomes yet, but they had made their decision. “He’s not the guy,” White whispered after the rehearsal as she walked down a gravel path to get some air. “I don’t know how this is going to go.”

The concert itself went fine. In fact, in the next few weeks, the group would realize that Gomes is a strong player of classical music. They would hire him to serve as a substitute for their own gigs.

For now, they didn’t let on that there was anything wrong.

The barn was packed, the moon illuminated the fields outside, and a bat circled in the wooden rafters as they performed. The audience was thrilled by the music. And the Harlem Quartet didn’t just play. They talked — telling stories about working with Corea, reminding everyone they can be serious when they do Ravel but loosen up now — and they ended on a happy note with “Take The A Train.”

Backstage, the enthusiasm was tempered. Hernandez and Gavilán held a heated discussion behind some shrubs. The schedule was getting more and more complicated as the violist explained how inconvenient it was for him to return for rehearsals once he moved to Los Angeles in September.

It was almost fall, and they not only didn’t have a cellist for a series of upcoming concerts. They needed a substitute on viola as well.

A change of heart

That’s just when something strange happened. Something called good luck.

In August, the group auditioned Jaime Amador, a violist in the San Juan Symphony. It went well enough that they asked him to substitute for Hernandez in September. Meanwhile they asked Zalkind if he had a break in his schedule to sub for Wiancko. He did.

In Michigan, Gavilán, White, Zalkind, and Amador were put up together in a house. They barbecued, watched “Death at a Funeral” and “Airplane!” together, and played for hours.

One night, Gavilán did what he promised he’d never do. He turned to Zalkind. “We have obvious chemistry and we’d like you to reconsider,” he said.

“It was hard for me to turn down the quartet the first time,” replied Zalkind, 26.

Back at the University of Michigan, he checked in with his adviser. It was clear that he could finish his doctorate later this year.

“Of course I’d love to join the group,” he said, calling Gavilán on the phone a week or so later.

Gavilán and White then invited Amador to become a member. There was no hesitation. Amador, 32, immediately agreed to move from Puerto Rico to New York.

“I’ve been playing with symphonies for years, but I always wanted to be a chamber musician,” he said. “Somebody can actually hear you.”

Gavilán and White couldn’t believe how easy the viola search had been.

“Because the cello search was so painful,” Gavilán said. “When you actually have chemistry with someone, there’s not so much to decide.”

On a crisp November morning, Paul Katz, founder of the conservatory’s quartet program, sent an e-mail to the group with a nudge. He knew they wanted to play a recital in the spring of 2013 with their new configuration. Jordan Hall fills up fast, he reminded them, so book that date soon.

He had invited the quartet back for a third year of what is normally a two-year program at NEC. Katz considered the next year crucial for the Harlem Quartet.

He remembered what it was like in 1980 when his own group, the Cleveland Quartet, had to deal with its first turnover. Violist Martha Strongin Katz, Paul’s wife at the time, left after 11 years so they could start a family.

“We were scared to death,” Katz remembered. “We weren’t sure she was replaceable.” But they went on to years of acclaim.

Katz didn’t know Amador yet, but he’d played with Zalkind. “I like Matt a lot and he’s a wonderful cellist,” he said.

Musically, Katz wanted to make sure the changes were seamless. Emotionally, he wanted to provide a voice of calm as the Harlem Quartet reinvents itself. Next month, they’ll gather together at the conservatory for the first time to resume their studies. The first concert with the new Harlem Quartet is Dec. 31 with the Santa Fe Symphony.

“Presenters get nervous,” Katz said. “They want a year or two and to find out how a group sounds and to make sure it’s stable. I’m hoping the word will go out and they’ll be able to go on without losing any momentum.”

As for the Harlem Quartet’s long-term prospects, their mentor remained optimistic.

“I feel really strong about these people,” said Katz, “but nothing’s 100 percent.”

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