The final concert of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival featured Imani Winds, last Sunday at the picturesque Shalin Liu Performance Center. I’ve enjoyed performances by this New York-based (but rigorously touring) ensemble in some of their past visits to Boston, but this is the first time I had heard compositions by the members themselves. At the apex of their program were fairly new arrangements of The Rite of Spring for five winds, and Barber’s Summer Music, as well as three compositions by Imani players (and seriously talented composers) Jeff Scott (horn) and Valerie Coleman (flute). Rockport Artistic Director David Deveau noted that he first heard this group play over 10 years ago, while judging a competition in New York, and has brought them to the festival several times in the past few years. After hearing the performance Sunday afternoon, I have no qualms in saying that Imani Winds is simply the best wind quintet out there right now. Their ensemble is strikingly virtuosic, immaculately tight, stylistically agile, and they know how to engage the audience with sincere, succinct and thoughtful comments about the music they perform.
Jeff Scott’s concert opener, Start Somethin, deconstructs ragtime music into a visceral fanfare, with a stirring sense of musical dialogue and a syncopated drive far more rhythmically intoxicating than anything from Scott Joplin. At the center came a wild solo for oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz. Samuel Barber’s Summer Music, which followed, is probably the most well-known and beloved piece for the wind quintet. Imani’s performance of the Barber this evening was by no means perfect, and some of the tempos were a bit faster than what I believe the composer had intended. But they played it with emotion, and convincingly embraced the lugubrious melodic writing that Barber weaves throughout his scattered musical narrative.
Valerie Coleman’s Afro-Cuban Concerto, an ambitious commission for the quintet in partnership with the New Haven Symphony, was rearranged for the quintet alone. In three movements, the Concerto contained ample showcase moments for each player, but didn’t seem to lose any of its original coherence in its transition from an orchestral work to chamber music. The second slow movement, Vocalise, was the most intriguing for me, with a lush lyrical tapestry with only scattered hints of the rhythmic tropes that dominate the outer movements. The closing movement, Danza, had a very exciting sense of ‘winding up’ and release, and deserves special mention with regards to horn player Jeff Scott’s performance. Coleman’s Rubisphere, an ultra-virtuosic and ultra-rhythmic outing for trio featured after intermission, featured a more intriguing harmonic language (it bears mentioning that the concerto was composed in 2001, Rubisphere, in 2012). Coleman, clarinetist Mariam Adam, and bassoonist Monica Ellis rocked it.
The most ambitious endeavor for the program was certainly Jonathan Russell’s arrangement of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The arranger, in this case, deserves an enormous amount of praise for managing to preserve this pillar of 20th century music in an instrumentation that is severelyreduced. The result, of course, is exponentially more demanding on the performers than simply playing their respective wind parts in the original orchestration. The group did brilliantly, but no one deserves more praise than (you guessed it) bassoonist Monica Ellis. The bassoon writing in Le Sacre is exhausting enough as is. Here’s Ellis had to leap immediately from these iconic bassoon passages to cover parts originally scored for low strings and brass. I expected there to be gaping holes in everything I love about this piece, and was shocked at how little had to be left out. This arrangement was created recently, in 2010, and the wind quintet repertoire will benefit enormously.
The concert closed with famed oud player Simon Shaheen’s Dance Medditeranea (arranged by Jeff Scott), a fantasy on eastern-influenced scales and harmonies, featuring fun and flashy improvisational solos from all of the players. On the lighter side, it offered a good respite from the Stravinsky, as did the Klezmer-esque encore featuring clarinetist Miriam Adam. All in all, Imani Winds provided a truly excellent close to Rockport’s 2014 summer festival.