The Notes crew first spotted violist Juan Miguel Hernandez, First Prize winner of the 2009 Brahms Competition and founding member of the Harlem Quartet, down in the 65th Street Subway Station in New York City.
It was not the most romantic of settings for a first meeting, grant you, but it certainly left an impression on a certain pair of our writers. One even called him “extraordinary-looking,” a superlative usually reserved these days for the likes of Hollywood “Boys-du-Jour.”
The first thing we noticed about rising-star Juan Miguel Hernandez: His hair. The second: The bevy of young beauties shadowing his every move as he breezed from one subway car to the next. Rather than join the entourage (we do have pride, after all), we instead resolved to observe from afar, trailing Juan Miguel and his lady friends, just out of sight.
It wasn’t long before the reasons for the current hype surrounding the young French-Canadian became abundantly clear. Let’s just get obvious out of the way, shall we? He’s tall with a lithe, athletic form, and a strong presence that commands attention. He can’t help but turn heads as he brushes past (mostly long-haired heads, we might add), with his easygoing demeanor and polished confidence, coupled with a rich sonority to his laughter that is matched only by the velvety charms of his viola playing.
AND? The coveted secret behind the man’s bristling charisma is the fact that he‘s…well, sort of goofy! Throughout his twenty-minute subway ride uptown, Hernandez had his entire coterie in waves of sparkling giggles with his animated antics - which, we did we fail to mention, happened to be in English and French?
After many hours of stalking--err, we mean asking--Hernandez agreed to a phone interview between concert stops in London and Chicago.
Notes: Can you tell us what you felt at the moment when you learned you had won at The Brahms Competition?
Well, I don’t really know how I felt, to tell you the truth, but I can tell you how it happened…They announced the Third Prize winner…then Second Prize, and then…well then, they announced the First Prize winner, but it was completely in German…so all I really heard was “[DER, DIE, DAS] Juan Miguel Hernandez [LOUD APPLAUSE].” I thought “Oh ****, really?!” I was so surprised because honestly, I originally did this competition to push and challenge myself in new ways, and I never expected even to make it to the finals, let alone to win!
Notes: You are also a founding-member of the Harlem Quartet, right?
Yes. In 2006, I won the Sphinx Competition in their Senior Divison. That summer, the Organization called me to ask whether I would like to create a quartet of past Sphinx winners. Our first concert was at Carnegie Hall. We have been so fortunate, we found a great chemistry and the quartet developed quickly - within a few months, we had a manager and everything, and then we went straight out on the road. And we haven’t stopped since. It’s been a wild ride so far.
Notes: We understand that in addition to your fine classical performances, you guys also dabble in jazz.
You know, in being part of the Harlem Quartet, I have been exposed to so many different types of great music, and so it has opened up my eyes and ears to the world of jazz. I was always interested in it but of course I never really tried to explore it in-depth…We recently played a string quartet by Wynton Marsalis called “At The Octoroon Balls,” and it’s a musical portrait of New Orleans, in seven parts. Each of the movements represents a different aspect of the city…from the fiddlers of the city to a house of ill-repute, to the cultural exchange between New Orleans and Cuba, all the way to mating calls of local critters! The entire piece is a fantastic and incredibly vivid journey, with many elements of jazz. And the music allows for freedom in a very different way than the more standard classical repertoire.
Notes: Do you guys consider yourselves a crossover group, given the diversity of your repertoire?
In the classical music world, I notice that everyone is trying to find ways to attract new audiences, to keep up with the modern world and its changes. And I think because of that, groups and people are quickly categorized as either classical or jazz or cross-over groups, and some invisible divide seems to exist, that you can‘t be more than one. But I think the best way to engage your audiences is just to follow your creative interests. The Harlem Quartet is doing something different just by exploring new repertoire because we are a classical group but we also play jazz…
So to answer your question, I would not say we are cross-over, but more because we try not to categorize or limit ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with cross-over, it’s very popular for a reason. We just try and incorporate variety in our programs to give our audiences the most fulfilling experience possible.
Notes: What inspires you about Educational Outreach performance, which the Harlem Quartet clearly does a lot of?
What inspires me when I play music in general – when I think of it – is the palette emotions I am able to communicate, to really embrace what I am feeling at that moment…feeling connected to the rest of the world and to great people all over the world, not only through my own art -- but through theirs. So Educational Outreach, to me, is part of that personal growth and journey as much as it is about bringing music to new listeners. It’s about connecting with new people in new ways.
Many of the kids we play for, a lot of them either have a misconception about what classical music is, or they are just unaware of what it’s about. So we really try to encourage them to try it for themselves and show them that it’s cool. We go out there put on a fun and compelling show. The reaction we get from these kids is just overwhelming, uplifting and…and so heartwarming.
Notes: We imagine you have plenty of time to read on the road. What’s your favorite book? Anecdote?
The Art of Happiness by Howard C. Cutler, definitely, is my favorite book. Sometimes you will watch a movie and something inspires you, for whatever reason, to become a better person. It happens in concerts, and it happens through great books. The Art of Happiness just grabbed me in the right spot in my heart and I felt rejuvenated; it made me want to always strive to grow and be a better person.
And anecdote?…Uhh…well, one of my favorite French quotes is by Molière: “Le plus grand faible des hommes, c'est l'amour qu'ils ont de la vie.” It means: “Man's greatest weakness is his love of life.”