By Charlotte Dutton
Last night, I was in the presence of presence. With the height of six-feet and four-inches, curly hair that easily adds another three inches, a smile from earth to the moon and a voice as deep as the ocean and so resonant it would make microphones obsolete, violist Juan-Miguel Hernandez is the epitome of presence.
Juan-Miguel, the Canadian violist of Dominican descent in The Harlem Quartet, began violin at seven and viola at twelve. He attended the Pierre-Laporte Music High School, a public music high school in Montreal, where his family is currently fighting to keep funds up for public schools. In 2004, Juan-Miguel entered the Colburn Conservatory of Music under the tutelage of Paul Coletti. Previous to his years at Colburn, Juan-Miguel studied at the Vincent-D’Indy College in Montreal with Madeleine Mercy and Jean MacRae. In September 2009, Juan-Miguel won the Grand Prize at the 16th International Johannes Brahms Competition in Austria. There is definitely mutual attraction between Juan-Miguel and the classical music industry, and he is well on his way to a solo viola career.
In 2006, Juan-Miguel won the National Sphinx Competition through the Sphinx Organization, an organization that tries to bring classical music to African-Americans and Latinos. After winning the award, Juan-Miguel became a Sphinx First Place Laureate and was asked to join the Harlem String Quartet with violinists Ilmar Gavilan and Melissa White and cellist Desmond Neysmith.
“This is a group,” Juan-Miguel states, “whose purpose is to give music–classical music–to underserved communities. One time, we were in the South somewhere, I don’t quite remember where, and we played for a school for blind and deaf students. We weren’t sure how this was going to work, but they turned out to have the most amazing response. The questions they asked, and the jokes they understood within the music, even just the way we played things…it was amazing.”
“The Sphinx Organization,” continued Juan-Miguel, “has been around for thirteen years, and they have seen positive results. There have been kids—more kids—of African and Latino descent going into classical music.”
In the next year, The Harlem Quartet will be traveling all over the country and the world, playing the music of both well-known classical composers and living composers of Latino and African-American descent.
“We’re going international,” enthused Juan-Miguel, “We’re going to Brazil and England and playing with the Anchorage Symphony. Well, that’s not international, but it’s far. We’re going far.” He smiles at this, and when I ask if he’ll be playing for the Queen in England, he said, “Well, we’ll be playing for a lot of politicians and very important people, and we’ll be playing in the American Embassy, the second largest building in England after the Palace. It’s to have Sphinx connections in England. They’re going European!”
Juan-Miguel’s presence fills a room whether or not he is playing his viola. He is as enthusiastic about playing in The Metropolitan Museum of Art with Itzhak Perlman (“Let everyone know that it’s on October 3rd and they’re all invited to come,” Juan-Miguel requested), as he is about “fried chicken for $9.99” and getting the correct copy of Goethe’s Faust for a humanities class he is taking this semester at The Colburn Conservatory with “Prof. Dutton, my ear training and humanities teacher, [who] is the best. He is my idol.” His charm actually “glamoured” the clerk at Barnes and Noble into a hectic fit of stuttering. His love of and enthusiasm for his quartet, for the Sphinx Project and for music is contagious.
Juan-Miguel and The Harlem Quartet are performing with The Sphinx Chamber Orchestra in Oberlin’s Finney Chapel on September 20, 2009 at 3:00 pm. For more information, check out www.hernandezjm.com, the Harlem Quartet page on facebook, and their extensive videos on youtube.