A breeze of change could be felt at the PCMS with the lively music of the Imani Winds concert at the Philosophical Society. The energy the group brings to their performances is palpable. They have established themselves as promoters of compositions beyond the musical canon, and in doing so they are promoting new compositions for wind quintet, whose repertory is far smaller than that of the string quartet.
Valerie Coleman, founding flutist of the group, explained her motivation on NPR: “I used to be in the youth orchestra [as a child], and there were so many African Americans. But somewhere along the line, when I got to college, I was the only one in the orchestra. So I wondered what in the world happened here? It came to my mind that role models are needed.” So she and four other African-American virtuosi founded the quintet in 1997.
In the ensuing twenty-two years, the group has evolved. Mark Dover joined as clarinetist in January 2016 and Brandon Patrick George took the flute position in the fall of 2018. Valerie Coleman is now a well-established composer whose music Imani Winds promotes. This concert featured her Tzigane (2011), a wonderful showpiece for Monica Ellis who uses an extension on her bassoon to play a thrilling and resonant low A. Mark Dover, clarinet, also shines in the eclectic mix of styles influenced by Romani, klezmer, and Middle Eastern music.
Jeff Scott, the formidable horn player of the ensemble, composes for the group as well. His Startin’ Sumthin’ was the lively appetizer to the John Harbison five-movement Quintet for winds, a tour-de-force which exploits the many different sounds of the winds – deeper notes on the clarinet against extremely high notes on the bassoon in the Intermezzo, bell-like chords in the Romanza, a thrumming tattoo of varying rhythms in the scherzo. The Finale gave each instrument a solo over a dissonant quartet as they proceeded to a wild and breathless cadence.
The jazzy grace of Lalo Schifrin’s La Nouvelle-Orléans uses a snare drum rhythm as the motif in each part with beautiful solos and a striking horn/bassoon duet.
The James Primosch premiere lacked fire. It was hard to identify a theme in the first movement, Calling. The rhythms of Dancing, the second movement, showed potential but were not fully developed. Ms. Ellis played the beautifully mournful bassoon part of Remembering, the third movement. The most exciting movement was the fourth, Grooving, with syncopated staccato passages, played with grace and accuracy by the outstanding musicians.
The delights of the Sechs Bagatelles by György Ligeti, which the Imani plays so well, especially Molto vivace (Capriccioso), showing off their incredible ensemble in the challenging final movement, provided the highlight of the concert.
The fresh take on classical music by Imani Winds was a welcome change from the staid musical menus offered by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. Imani Winds highlights the voices of newer composers and, yes, enjoys a bit of fun with encores like Go Tell it on the Mountain, but everything they play has a well-polished ensemble making it seem as if they are improvising. They provide the shot-in-the-arm that classical music needs today. Bravo to Miles Cohen and the PCMS for bringing Imani Winds and their exciting music back to the PCMS.
[The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society presents Imani Winds, Friday, February 15, 2019 at 7:30 p.m. at Benjamin Franklin Hall, 427 Chestnut St., Philadelphia.]