By the time the lights dim and the first performer walks onto the stage playing the opening lines, you suspect you are in for a gorgeous Sunday afternoon of top flight musicianship. The instrument is the horn, and the player is Jeff Scott of the woodwind quintet, Imani Winds. Presently a flute sounds from off stage and Valerie Coleman joins him. Their duet soon becomes a trio as clarinetist Mariam Adam strolls on stage. She is followed by oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz, with the bassoon of Monica Ellis ultimately laying the musical foundation.
Such could well have been the musings of practically any attendee as the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild presented its latest edition at the Fletcher Opera Theater. This opening piece, “Afro Blue” by Ramon Santamaria, was as unorthodox as it was attractive. Evidently a “signature” feature of the group, it was arranged by the flutist. At one point it called for vocal give and take between audience and players. It was played from memory with the performers standing and informally moving about.
The honors and achievements applicable to the Imani Winds (in Swahili imani = faith) and to each individual member would constitute a long and impressive list. It would contain their Grammy nomination, commissions, CD releases, scholarly pursuits. For extensive background information, the reader is directed to an excellent Preview in this journal by Alexandra Jones.
A major work of the afternoon was the Quintet in D, Op. 95 by the Czech composer Josef Bohuslav Foerster. He is said to have come under the influence of Mahler during a lengthy sojourn in Vienna. This four-movement quintet was surprisingly modern, with only the second movement, andante sostenuto, showing the “Mahlerian” romanticism. The fine program notes contained a quote from Foerster as he praised the instrumental colors in his work. Perhaps that quote could just as well be applied to these five players in general: “…the exploitation of the low and high registers of the flute, the exultant sound of the oboe, the lizard-like suppleness and the dramatic accents of the clarinet, the dreamy cantina of the horn, and the humorous depths and lamenting highlights of the bassoon.”
The group’s main concession to musical “orthodoxy” was a piece by Franck. With “Scherzo,” Geoffrey Emerson has adapted a movement from that composer’s string quartet. Though obviously written for strings, the piece seemed like a natural for woodwinds. In yet another adaptation, Jeff Scott has successfully arranged Astor Piazzolla’s “Escualo” for the quintet. It maintained the lively Latin flavor one expects from Piazzolla.
Present in the audience was the Prague-born composer, Karel Husa, whose “Five Poems” provided the highlight of the concert. The listener is invited to supply the actual words to the poems. Each of the five movements evoked distinct images of birds — birds walking, birds fighting, birds lamenting. The clarinet was the chirping, happy bird. The horn effectively mimicked the walking, or rather hopping, bird. Arresting was the conjured image of birds lamenting their dead. The flute, oboe, and clarinet provided the mournful lamentations, while one visualized the dead by way of the horn and bassoon. With the final poem, “Bird Flying High Above,” the reader/hearer of the poems was at length lifted high above the fray. It would have been impossible to resist the lure of that great bird as it wafted on powerful thermals in ever increasing spirals.
Perhaps the fate of the “finer” arts is indeed in the hands of those accomplished practitioners who will dare to break the molds cast by their honored predecessors.
Preview: Imani Winds Perform November 18, 2007, in Fletcher Opera Theater, by Alexandra Jones
Forget everything you learned about chamber music from the Canadian Brass. A new kind of small ensemble — a group known for its unprecedented musicianship, stylistic diversity, and eclectic crossover mentality — is about to teach Triangle audiences a thing or two about wind quintets The Raleigh Chamber Music Guild will present the Imani Winds, one of the nation's premier chamber ensembles, at the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts' Fletcher Opera Theater.
The Imani Winds are flutist, composer, and founder Valerie Coleman; oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz; clarinetist Mariam Adam; hornist Jeff Scott; and bassoonist Monica Ellis. Through performances, outreach, and commissions of new works, the group strives to enrich wind quintet repertoire and incorporate diverse genres and styles into the classical wind quintet idiom.
Along with the group's stellar performances, multiple ASCAP awards and a 2006 Grammy nomination for their album The Classical Underground have cemented Imani's reputation as a top chamber ensemble. Its members boast collective curriculum vitae peppered with individual awards, Broadway gigs, solo appearances with the world's major orchestras, and teaching positions with prestigious institutions like the Juilliard School and Mannes College of Music.
String quartets are the most popular small classical ensembles; brass quintets and wind quintets are less often heard. Wind groups highlight woodwind instruments and horn in chamber settings, blending five different timbres — effervescent flute; reedy, plaintive oboe; satiny clarinet; darkly resonant bassoon; celestially mellow horn. These contrasting tone colors present the enterprising composer with a sonic palette suited to complex musical expressions and versatile, exploratory works.
The Imani Winds seek out new compositions and perform a diverse repertoire of transcriptions and centuries-old staples. Programs often include arrangements and original works by the quintet's members; their upcoming performance features arrangements by flutist Coleman and hornist Scott.
Building a lineup of pieces that will entertain and engage audiences — and keep the performers interested through dozens of tour dates — isn't always easy.
"It takes a long, long time to come up with a program," oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz said in an e-mail interview. "We schedule a series of meetings to make all of the programs for a year in the late spring/early summer and lock ourselves in a room until it's all done."
The upcoming program shows off not only the Imani Winds' stylistic interests but also their adventuresome approach to chamber music. The works of 20th-century composers hailing from four different continents are placed alongside chamber-music mainstays of 19th-century Europe.
"We usually base a program around a couple of major pieces that we really want to play. We call those 'major' pieces the 'entrée' pieces," Spellman-Diaz explained. "Then we decide the 'first course,' 'appetizers,' and 'apéritif' pieces so that we get a 'well-balanced meal' of a program."
Well-balanced — and highly varied — it is: Coleman's arrangement of Cuban jazz percussionist Ramon "Mongo" Santamaria's "Afro Blue" is structured after African call-and-response forms, while Narong Prangcharoen's "Shadow" features layers of Thai folk themes and a structure drawn from the dual-perspective device in the music film Hilary and Jackie. Prolific chamber composer Josef Bohuslav Foerster's Quintet in D Major revels in the wind quintet's unique sonority throughout its four movements, and the Scherzo from the Romantic César Franck's String Quartet in D transitions easily to this instrumentation. "Five Poems" by Pulitzer Prize-winning Czech composer Karel Husa depict images of birds, and Astor Piazzolla's "Escualo" ("Shark"), arranged by hornist Jeff Scott, is inspired by the tango king's interest in shark fishing.
2007 marks the Imani Winds' tenth year together, and they've kept busy. The group combined with jazz vocalist Rene Marie and percussionist Joe Tompkins to record Josephine Baker: A Life of Le Jazz Hot! with music composed by Scott and Coleman. They also toured with jazz great Wayne Shorter to perform a piece he'd written for them.
"Wayne is a really, really special individual. He gives us so much love and support, and we try to give him as much love and support back as we can. And his band! Wow! " said Spellman-Diaz. "Playing with the Wayne Shorter Quartet has been some of the best music making I've ever done in my life." It's typical of the excitement the Imani Winds generate. Don't miss them! For details, see our calendar.