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The Harlem Quartet Upends the Notion of What a Classical Musician Looks Like

by Lea Zora Scruggs | Thursday, October 9, 2014

"You know, let's face it. When you think of classical music, it's not really an African-American face that comes to mind," said Melissa White, a violinist and founding member of the Harlem Quartet.

In a genre that has been dominated primarily by Europeans, the Harlem Quartet is changing the face and sound of classical music.

Founded by the Sphinx Organization in 2008, the Grammy award-winning group was created to advance diversity in classical music, while engaging new audiences with varied repertoire that includes works by minority composers.

Less than than 4 percent of musicians in American symphonies African Americans and Latino.

"Diversity in classical music is a very positive ideal, because for so many years, in this country, that ideal was a homogenous thought. By bringing in different cultural values and viewpoints, they are brining an American ideal of melting pot to the stage," says Moses Bernard Phililps, a professor of Ethnomusicology at CUNY's Medgar Evans College.

After a few personnel changes over the years, the Quartet became even more diverse. Matthew Zelkind, a Jewish Cellist from Salt Lake City, and Jaime Amador, a viola player from San Juan, Puerto Rico, joined the group in 2012.

Despite the quartet's immense talent, that took years of training to reach a professional level, the diverse look of the group has not always been received well.

"We had important mentors that would tell us, I don't think you will work in the European market. We knew that meant, not only, he's talking about the quality of our playing, but just the image," explains Ilmar Gavilan, a Cuban violinist and founding member.

To accommodate these audiences, the Harlem Quartet has started performances with jazz repertoire and snuck in classical pieces to show that they can perform a variety of music.

"The Harlem Quartet projects a phenotype that when people see what is happening or when they see who is performing, they begin to change their attitude about what that group is and what they're capable of doing," said Philips.

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