While many entertainment industry hopefuls are hitchhiking cross country for “American Idol” auditions or dreaming of stardom on reality TV shows, a group of young Latino and African-American musicians are taking a decidedly different route to fame.
Desmond Neysmith, Juan-Miguel Hernandez, Ilmar Gavilan and Melissa White, members of classical music ensemble Harlem Quartet, look the part of pop music prodigies. But onstage, the foursome deftly executes the complex cadences of lofty classical composers with the passion of soul artists.
Formed in 2006, the quartet has performed with legendary artist Itzhak Perlman and appeared twice at the White House.
Unlike many of their peers, all four musicians have spent years perfecting their craft and learning the complexities of classical, jazz and Latin music.
For Hernandez, chamber music has always trumped other genres and he has long fostered an innate preference for string ensembles.
“I grew up listening to new age and world music around my mom and Latin music around my dad. But somehow, as I became a teenager all I wanted to listen to was classical music,” said Hernandez, 25, who was raised in Canada. “Although all my friends at school listened to popular music — rock, rap, hip-hop — I never really had an interest and still to this day am quite uninformed about those genres. This being said, I do like listening to jazz, but this is a relative, a cousin to classical music in my opinion.”
Hernandez, the first and second prize winner in the National Canadian Music Competitions, has studied with famed violinist Lorand Fenyves and cellist Laurence Lesser and is also a member of the trio Lamoureux-Hernandez-Pelletier. In 2005 and 2006, he embarked on a whirlwind tour of Slovenia, Salzburg, New Mexico, Los Angeles and Israel.
Similarly, Gavilan has harbored a keen interest in classical music since his childhood in Havana, Cuba. The recording artist has imbued the syncopated rhythms of conga and rumba — a musical reflection of Cuba’s African and European influences — into Harlem Quartet’s repertoire.
However, Gavilan said being a musician of color in a predominately White venue has not presented any "significant challenges."
"…Simply looking around me and noticing that I was one of a hand full in my orchestra, honestly it gave me an edge rather then a problem."
As a solo artist, Gavilan has performed with the Detroit, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Baltimore, Denver, Phoenix and Saint Louis symphonies and he released his U.S. recording debut, Aires Y Leyendas in 2002.
Melissa White, the lone female member of Harlem Quartet, has also released her own album, a CD recording of An American Concerto by Gwyneth Walker. Although traveling the world and performing with internationally acclaimed orchestras is a boon for the violinist’s career, working with at-risk youth is also an integral part of her life.
“The most rewarding part of sharing my music with inner city youth is seeing their eyes light up when they hear the sound of our music and see the fun we are having on stage. Many times we will play for schools with children who have never seen nor heard classical music. So it makes a huge impact for them to be exposed to a whole new art form and see people on stage who look like themselves,” said White, who performed at the 2006 NAACP Image Awards with the Ritz Chamber Players. “I enjoy interacting with the children so the really walk away with their eyes open to a new world of possibilities. I feel blessed that music is a part of my life and it is most rewarding to share that with everyone but especially with inner-city youth.”
While his counterparts have primary interests in classical music, Neysmith has branched out to other forms of artistic expression. The cellist has traveled to Asia, Europe and around the United States with his music theatre company, The Gogmagogs, and performed as an actor in a production of stage play Bent.
At their upcoming performance in Columbia, Md., the group will performs works by Ravel, Haydn, Wynton Marsalis' "At the Octoroon Balls" and the jazz standard "Take the A Train."
The Harlem Quartet will perform at Howard Community College’s Smith Theater, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, in Columbia, Md., on June 13, 3:30 p.m. Tickets are between $12-$30. For more information, call 410-997-2324.