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Their brochure promised “Live music by living composers.” That’s what the Free Spirits Ensemble delivered on a fine Sunday afternoon by way of a program entitled where colors play and hoodoos dance. The colors and the hoodoos would be clarified late in the program. Sponsored by the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra, the group performed at the elegant Holly Springs Cultural Center.
Flutist Irene Burke opened in expert form with “Food from the Spirits,” unaccompanied and a bit impressionistic. She pointed out that the contemporary composer, Sarah Quartel, used spare markings, inviting the performer to interpret freely.
Guitarists Patrick Flynn and Craig Wiggins were special guests of the Ensemble. These accomplished players collaborated in a pair of duos, “Promenade” by Stephen Dogson, and “Casablanca – A Place, a story, a kiss” by Jaime M. Zenaman. The former depicted a seaside, a bird sanctuary and a dogfight, among other scenes. The latter was inspired by and named for the famous movie, recalling vignettes and tunes therefrom. This piece featured the use by both guitarists of miniature electric fans with leather-tipped blades. When applied to the strings, these fans produced an altogether pleasing, exotic sound, meant to evoke the buzz of wartime planes flying overhead. It is a good bet that most in the audience had not experienced the like of this before. (It is a certain bet that at least one had not.)
Saxophonist Wayne Leechford teamed with pianist and Ensemble founder Lanette Lind for major works by Richard Faith. “Phantasie No. III, Andante, espressivo” and “No. IV, Allegro con brio” were said to depict an ancient Greek festival. The instruments here were equal partners, combining for a particularly frenzied ending. Later these same players joined for other Faith pieces, “Pastorale,” showing alternating clouds and sun, and then a pair of “Doric Dances,” originally written for voice and piano. Such works as these, along with skill like Leechford’s, show why the saxophone is taking its place among true concert instruments.
Jim Williams and his clarinet were prominent in the second half of the program. He first played the Largo movement from Copland’s great Concerto for Clarinet, written in 1948 for Benny Goodman, with Lind again accompanying. As a finale, he participated with Lind in what had to be the highlight of the afternoon: The world premiere of Lind’s own composition, where colors play and hoodoos dance. This multimedia piece (canyon views were shown in the background) was inspired by a visit to Antelope Canyon where she was moved by the incredible colors and by the fantastic shapes (hoodoos) of the rock formations. The work was in two distinct movements, one peaceful and the other agitated as suggested by the title divisions. These two polished musicians certainly applied their finest techniques to this significant event.
Your Funk & Wagnalls would tell you that free spirits are persons “unconstrained by society’s conventions; nonconformists.” The Free Spirits Ensemble comes across as unconventional and nonconformist, in the best sense of those words.