Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Imani Winds give a remarkable concert at Kaul Auditorium

Occasionally one attends a performance where the the musicianship is of such high caliber, the selections are so varied and engrossing, and the personality of the performers is so engaging that the feeling of it lingers long afterward, like the faint ghost of a warmly remembered dream. The concert by the acclaimed Imani Winds on Saturday night, February 20th in the Kaul Auditorium at Portland’s Reed College, was just such an event.

The performance marked the end of the Imani Winds’ residency at Reed, and was part of Chamber Music Northwest’s ’09-’10 Encore series. All of the music presented was from the 20th and 21st centuries, and three of the night’s offerings were composed by the group’s flutist Valerie Coleman, as well as two with arrangements by the horn player Jeff Scott. ‘Personality’ was a watchword of the evening, referenced by several of the group as each of the five performers stood, one before each work, to speak about the piece to follow.

The only un-introduced work of the evening was the opener, Coleman’s Afro Blue, which began with oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz wandering nonchalantly onto the stage to begin singing a loud, exuberant melody, rough edges gloriously exposed, based (as was later explained) on the Afro-Cuban religion Santería. One by one the rest of the group filed out and they began playing their instruments in a wild aural jumble, seemingly heedless of each other. Eventually the work developed into a series of arguments, first clarinet vs. oboe, then those two against the flute with bassoon and horn rumbling in the background as if egging on the row. Towards the end the composer invited the audience to join in a call-and-response, which was enthusiastically picked up.

The next work was by Czech composer Karel Husa, a programmatic piece called Five Poems, each of which was based on something to do with the life of birds. It was more than a recitation of bird song notation, though the composer wrote that he used that effect. Put simply, the work presented the spiritual and emotional life of birds. Rapt silence greeted the first poem, Walking Bird, an abstract yet easily idiomatic rendering of birds strolling down the beach—jerky, alien yet humorous. In Interlude: Lamenting Bird and its companion With a Dead Bird, the music turned intensely atmospheric and spooky, a weird, muted wailing emanating from the horn. Fighting Birds was a cacophony of toots, whistles, squawks, shrieks and burps, as well as incredible delicacy from the horn. The group closed the half with a piece commissioned early in their career, Aires Tropicales by Paquito D’Rivera, a piece redolent with Latin American rhythms and themes such as Habanera and Vals Venezolano.

The second half opened with a brutally difficult work by Györgi Ligeti, Ten Pieces for Wind Quintet. A bewildering forest of rasping dissonances, penetrating unisons, sonic experiments and textural adventures, the movements rarely lasted more than a minute or so but were more intense and memorable for their brevity. Forget about tonality; only occasionally did the listener glimpse brief snatches of what could even be called melody. Bassoonist Monica Ellis was intriguing all throughout the evening, bringing forth sounds from her instrument that were nothing short of amazing: angry exclamations, aspirant chuffs, and a muffled tootling enabled by a cloth stuffed into the end of her instrument were just a few of the skills she brought to the Ligeti. The last movement ended with a joke played on the audience. The music came to a pause and the performers all leaned forward, brows furrowed, eyes locked, bodies tensed in preparation for what must surely be a simultaneous explosion from the whole group…then they relaxed, and sat back laughing without sounding another note. It was over.

The next work was a composition of Coleman’s, adapted from a multimedia presentation about the life of chanteuse, dancer and humanitarian Josephine Baker. It consisted of four movements, each telling the story of a different phase of her life. Ol’ St. Louis began with what Coleman described as the music Baker would have heard as a young girl in St. Louis, when street-corner bands were playing the earliest distillations of a new music that would later become jazz. There was great work here for Scott on the horn and Mariam Adam on the clarinet, as they spilled out tune after saucy tune in the old, ‘dirty’ jazz style. In Paris 1925 Coleman gave a nod not only to Baker’s years as Europe’s most popular burlesque dancer, but also conveyed the wide-eyed wonder of a young African American woman encountering a place where the rigid cruelty of American segregation did not apply. The evening closed with Scott’s dexterous arrangement of Astor Piazzola’s popular Libertango.

There was never a doubt that the audience would settle for anything less than an encore, which turned out be another composition by Coleman, an exuberant African-based piece entitled Umojaa, Swahili for ‘unity.’ The performers spoke about personality, their own and that of the music, several times throughout the night. When it is precisely that personality which stands out in the face of such brilliant, difficult music so expertly and sensitively performed, then it was a memorable concert indeed.

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