Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Imani Winds Brings the House Down at CMNW

Jeff Scott, Monica Ellis, Toyin Spellman-Diaz, Valerie Coleman
Mariam Adam. The Imani Winds
Photo by Matthew Murphy
The month of July opened for Chamber Music Northwest with an incredible display of fireworks a few days early. Perennial festival favorites the Imani Winds headlined the evening at Kaul Auditorium, and there was also some exciting string playing from other familiar faces.

First however, was the Serenade for Two Violins and Viola, Op. 12, by Zoltan Kodály. Ani Kavafian on first violin was joined by violinist Benjamin Beilman and violist Paul Neubauer. A gorgeous, sighing melody opened the work, with the players striving for a unity in tone and expression that made for literally seamless transitions as the melody passed back and forth.  The Lento ma non troppo was a study in spooky atmospherics, and Beilman showed great stamina in playing an almost ceaseless, shifting pianissimo tremolo throughout the entire movement. Kavafian was a virtual folio artist: squawking, squealing and singing over this dark background. The work in its entirety was an exciting and vigorous interpretation.

Imani Winds' approach to Stravinsky's seminal Le Sacre du Printemps ("The Rite of Spring") was not to surprise or shock through some radically different envisioning, as strange as that may sound when one thinks of this work being 'reduced,' (although that feels like the wrong word) to a wind quintet. What was so surprising and delightful about it was the fact that it spared nothing.. the Imani Winds delivered with five instruments (six actually; Valerie Coleman switched back and forth from flute to piccolo periodically) a performance as nuanced and deep as one could want.

Stripped down to five instruments as it was, there was an incredible amount of work for each performer. Coleman, Toyin Spellman-Diaz (oboe) and Mariam Adam (clarinet) often filled in for strings and sundry other instruments, but it was Jeff Scott (horn) and especially Monica Ellis (bassoon) who had the stupendous job of driving this rhythmic monster of a piece forward. The arrangement itself was something to hear--Ellis had a tremendously difficult job, with barely a second to rest from the haunting opening strains straight through to the finale. She and Scott combined brilliantly to bring out the deep mystery from the bass lines. This was an arrangement that simultaneously demanded absolute virtuosity and independence from each performer and yet a sublime melding of all instruments, and only a group of this caliber could deliver that. The tremendous amount of work and unflagging, meticulous quality of sound was breathtaking to behold.

The second half opened with an oddly charming sonata by Ravel for violin (Yura Lee) and cello (Fred Sherry.) Sherry elicited a fine treble sound from his instrument as the two instruments chased a melody around between them. Sherry delivered the most gentle and expressive playing, sounding at times like he'd discovered a new instrument somewhere between a violin, viola and cello.  In the second movement, the Tres vif, Lee had a difficult task with tricky wailings and screechings, interspersed with a brassy pizzicato that gave way to a sudden, sere ending. The surprisingly dense texture of the fourth movement--many hammered out chords for both instruments--also required nimbleness to leap back and forth between the dizzying array of styles and techniques called for.

The finale saw the return of the Imani Winds accompanied by Anna Polonsky on the piano, for Poulenc's Sextet for Piano, Flute Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon and Horn. This jaunty affair that grew unexpectedly somber and then transitioned back once again saw Ellis demonstrating incredible stamina and dexterity. Scott's horn work was deliciously smooth, and Polonsky was deft and insightful as always. It is always an unparalleled pleasure to hear the Imani Winds perform, and true to their reputation, and thanks to all the performers the evening's music was spectacular.

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