Arts & Culture

Harlem Quartet — ‘a face that diversifies classical music’ — is coming to JCCC

Harlem Quartet’s mission is to address “the under-representation of people of color in classical music.”
Harlem Quartet’s mission is to address “the under-representation of people of color in classical music.”

The Detroit-based Sphinx Organization has been bringing social justice to classical music since 1997.

As part of its mission of “addressing the under-representation of people of color in classical music,” Sphinx founded the Harlem Quartet in 2006. The ensemble is still going strong and will bring its unique mix of European classical, jazz and Latin music to the Polsky Theatre at the Carlsen Center on July 31.

Violinist Melissa White, one of two founding members still in the quartet, recalled how the group began.

“Sphinx had gotten grants and funding from Target, and through these grants they were going to present music in public schools in and around the greater New York City area,” White said. “Sphinx thought it would be a great idea to form a group for the project, and so the quartet was created from former first prize winners of Sphinx’s yearly national competition. We went around to every school in Harlem playing classical music. It was a fun project, but we had no idea that one day it would turn out to be a full-time job.”

The New York City-area project has now become what White calls “an adventurous career” that has taken the Harlem Quartet around the world. But White’s personal musical journey goes back to when she was only 4 years old and saw Itzhak Perlman on “Sesame Street.”

“When the show was over, I asked my mom for a violin so I could play, and she didn’t say yes, but she didn’t say no,” White said. “She figured whatever came up on ‘Sesame Street’ the next day I would probably ask for that, too. But it didn’t change. For the next two years I only asked for a violin, Christmas, Easter, birthday. Finally, when I was 6 years old, I got a violin.”

And she’s been playing ever since. White has received performance degrees from both the Curtis Institute of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music and has studied with legendary violinists like Jaime Laredo and Miriam Fried. She’s also performed as soloist with some of America’s greatest orchestras, like the Cleveland Orchestra, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops.

Luckily for local music lovers, the next stop for White and her colleagues is the Carlsen Center.

The program will feature a classic Harlem Quartet mix of European and non-European music. The group will perform two standards of the classical repertoire, Debussy’s String Quartet and Brahms’ Third Quartet, as well as the delightful Ghost Rags by contemporary American composer William Bolcom.

“We played them for Mr. Bolcom, and he liked the way we brought the rags to life,” White said. “We make them sound as if they’re being played on a piano in a saloon.”

Another special treat will be the Cuarteto en Guaguancó by Guido López-Gavilán, father of the quartet’s other violinist, the Cuban-born Ilmar Gavilán. It’s a Latin tune based on the Guaguancó rhythm, a sub-genre of Cuban rumba.

White says that bringing this kind of international music to the concert hall, music that has perhaps never been heard by a classical audience, is one of her great joys.

“Our career has taken us around the world, which is an amazing thing, but particularly when we’re able to be a face that diversifies classical music and helps expose a greater audience to this wonderful art form,” she said. “It’s just been a spectacular experience.”

7 p.m. July 31. Polsky Theatre, Carlsen Center, Johnson County Community College, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park. $10-$25. 913-469-4445 or


KC VITAS was founded in 2015 by Jackson Thomas with the purpose of presenting summer concerts of new works commissioned by the choir. A worthy objective, but many arts organizations with noble goals often can’t survive the many challenges in their path.

Jackson Thomas.jpg
Jackson Thomas founded KC VITAS. Mary Vanhooser

But under Jackson’s able leadership, KC VITAS — which stands for Kansas City Vibrating Internal Thyroarytenoids — is going strong and will return with concerts on Aug. 2 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and August 4 at St. Peter’s Catholic Church.

”It’s hard to believe that we’re starting our 5th season,” Thomas said. “It has been so much fun seeing the growth in the organization and the meaningful connections that we’ve been able to make with composers.”

This year’s program was compiled from a pool of 802 submissions that KC VITAS received in its call for scores. Submissions came from 37 different countries and represent a 300% increase from previous years, which Thomas calls “astounding and daunting.”

”There will be something for everyone at the concert as the program features a high variety of compositional styles and mediums,” Thomas said. “Tonal to atonal, accompanied and unaccompanied, a variety of languages, and even a piece with electronics. The choir is better than ever, and, following our mission, the concerts are both free and open to the public.”

7 p.m. Aug. 2 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church 11 E. 40th St. and 2:30 p.m. Aug. 4 at St. Peter’s Catholic Church, 815 E Meyer Blvd. Free. For more information, visit

Free Steinway shows

This is just a reminder to keep an eye on what’s happening at Schmitt Music in Overland Park. Many fine pianists make an appearance at the store, performing on one of its spectacular Steinways. And these under-the-radar recitals are always free.

Russian-born pianist and Steinway Artist Zoya Shuhatovich will give a recital at Schmitt on July 31. It’s a chance to hear a pianist whom the New York Concert Review called “a commanding force at the keyboard.” Shuhatovich will play Bach, Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin.

7 p.m. July 31. Schmitt Music, 7316 West 119th St., Overland Park. Free. Call 913-663-4756 for event details or email to RSVP.

You can reach Patrick Neas at and follow his Facebook page, KC Arts Beat, at