The New York-based quintet, Imani Winds, performed an eclectic array of mostly 20th- and 21st-century works at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on Sunday, Nov. 7. The concert experience given by Imani Winds is without doubt linked to the group’s enormous success as a touring and recording chamber ensemble. While performing a substantial program of relentlessly difficult music, the group constantly engaged the audience in informal discussion on the pieces – thus bringing the aesthetic approach to wind music from Elliot Carter to as comparable a level of audience accessibility as Piazzolla.
The only pre-20th-century piece on the program was an arrangement of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream “Scherzo.” The arrangement still contained some modern flair, since the piece concentrates a tremendous amount of busy figuration from a larger ensemble into five instruments, with seemingly no downscaling of complexity. Flutist Valerie Coleman was hardly given a single chance to breathe in this arrangement, but lost none of her vibrancy along the way. The group displays an exciting sense of unity: a special, virtuosic kind of unity that teeters between feeling organic and mechanical, which was an unfailing virtue of the performances throughout the program.
Jason Moran’s Cane revealed some of the top-notch music that Imani Wind’s commissioning efforts are contributing to the wind quintet repertoire. The programmatic narrative of the piece followed the story of Marie Thérèse Metoyer or “Coincoin,” a freed slave who became a successful businesswoman and an icon of Créole culture in Louisiana. Moran’s connection to Coincoin goes beyond that of regional influence, as he is in fact one of her descendants. The style of the first three movements were largely characterized by shifting contrapuntal rhythmic textures underneath alluring melodies. The piece moves forward at a swift rate, having at least some grounding in post-minimalist techniques. The final movement wails in a contrasting, loose Dixieland idiom.
The two following works represented more established (though I dare say not quite as engaging) examples of the 20th-century chamber wind literature. Nielsen’s Neoclassical, pseudo-romantic Quintet for Winds has become a standard for wind quintets everywhere. The ensemble breathed color and life into the piece, and the tone of horn player Jeff Scott and bassoonist Monica Ellis fused nicely. But the variations, despite even the most extraordinary performances, are rather non-stimulating. Elliott Carter’s Quartet, a very early piece of the composer’s career, explores very limiting musical ideas over eight short etudes. The etudes sometimes feel like quirky composition exercises, but the closing movement delightfully pulls all of the materials together in a Fantasy that exhibits Carter’s colossal facility for counterpoint and convincing development.
Derek Bermel’s Wanderings integrates Jewish and Muslim influences into its first movement. West African rhythms are the root of the second movement, “Two Songs from Nandom.” There seemed to be little material that ties the two movements together, which was perhaps the motivation for the title. The first movement, “Gift of Life,” contained some interesting effects, and clarinetist Mariam Adam seemed completely comfortable with the Yiddish stylizations demanded by the piece. Interestingly, the bassoon was even asked to bend pitches in Klezmer fashion, which made for some really interesting ensemble sounds. The piece barely scratches the surface of the cultural dichotomies it claims to engage, but works quite well on a purely musical level.
Closing the concert was horn player Jeff Scott’s arrangement of Piazzolla’s Libertango. In addition to being a talented instrumentalist, Scott shows deft facility for orchestrating for the finicky medium that is the wind quintet. Coleman once again danced the off-axis tango melodies with virtuosic spectacle. Ellis’s tone and dynamic control was deserving of awe, as was the agility of oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz. Libertango was a fun, high-energy close to an exceptional performance.