Imani Winds has become a regular visitor to Maverick Concerts in Woodstock. This year the ensemble led off the season on Sunday, July 1, with a program based on the season’s “Gallic summer” theme, including both French anniversary composers, Debussy (150 years since his birth) and Ravel (75, since his death).
Eugène Bozza’s brief Scherzo opened the program and demonstrated that Imani’s amazingly clean, well balanced, precise, and spirited style was not going to be affected by the 90-degree heat. The program continued with something more substantial: Mason Jones’s arrangement for wind quintet of the four movements of Le Tombeau de Couperin that Ravel chose for his orchestral version. (The pre-performance commentary indicated that Jones used both Ravel’s orchestration and his piano original as his bases for his arrangement.) There were actually a few minor flaws in this performance. Some of the tempos were a bit rushed, and there were minor balance problems in some movements (too much clarinet at times in the Prelude, too much bassoon in parts of the Fugue). Gee, and here I thought this ensemble was perfect! Well, they were close to it in an otherwise splendid performance.
Debussy’s Bruyères (heathers), from Book 2 of his Preludes, translated surprisingly well to wind quintet in an arrangement by Jakub Kowalewski. However, I found the playing of this miniature somewhat too emphatic for the content.
Valerie Coleman, Imani’s flutist, is also an active composer. Her Suite: Portraits of Josephine, a tribute to Josephine Baker, fit beautifully into the program’s theme, since most of the American performer’s career was in Paris. I enjoyed the color and diverse techniques of Coleman’s writing, including some raucous jazz in the opening movement, “Ol’ St. Louis.” I didn’t hear a lot of substance, or memorable themes, in this music, but it did entertain pleasurably for a quarter-hour. And, of course, the group’s heart was obviously in this music. Still, I have to say I was more pleased by Homage to Duke,”\ a free fantasia on Ellington’s “Come Sunday,” by the group’s hornist, Jeff Scott. The rich texture of Scott’s writing made the music feel more substantial.
Jean Françaix’s Quintette (the first of two), from 1948, was the largest piece on the program. I’ve always loved this sparkling piece. The wacky humor that shows up in the last two movements, and the good spirits overall, may hide the essentially serious content of the piece. I found Imani’s performance just about ideal. This quintet has the reputation of being extremely difficult to play, but the group attacked it with Gallic gusto and loads of power, but never overwhelming the music. Scott’s rapid repeated notes in the opening movement were dazzling. And the finale, marked “Tempo di Marcia Francese,” is often played too fast, but this group got it just right, staying with the basic march tempo. A delight!
The program concluded with Lalo Schifrin’s La Nouvelle Orléans, a condensed depiction of a New Orleans funeral. This piece was recorded by the Dorian Wind Quintet (on Summit DCD 117), an ensemble apparently still in existence after more than 40 years and which at one time played regularly at Maverick. The music is effective and it was played splendidly by Imani Winds. No encores, despite the audience’s very enthusiastic applause at the end. After all, it was 90 outside.
Next Saturday’s scheduled concert of Indian classical music at Maverick has been canceled due to the sudden illness of flutist Steve Gorn. The series continues Sunday, July 8, with the Shanghai Quartet and pianist Pedja Muzijevic, piano solo prelude at 3 p.m., full ensemble at 4. The website, here , is quite helpful and comprehensive.
Leslie Gerber lives in Woodstock, New York. He has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and Amazon.com. He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.