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Music Review

Stirring sounds from expatriates and exiles

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / March 18, 2008

Displaying classical chamber music's increasingly entrepreneurial bent, Imani Winds -whose Celebrity Series concert on Saturday marked their Boston debut - have made it their mission to expand the wind quintet repertoire with newly commissioned and arranged music, consciously reflecting their own African-American and Latino heritage (much of it by flutist Valerie Coleman and hornist Jeff Scott, composers in their own right).

Their opening was theatrical. For Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue," made famous by John Coltrane, Scott took the stage alone, pealing the tune; the others slowly walked on, as Coleman's arrangement gradually segued from a sparkling Ravel-like sunrise into a sung call-and-response between players and audience. That genre-bridging was mirrored in Paquito D'Rivera's "Kites Over Havana," surrounding a Latin-jazz jam session (featuring clarinetist Mariam Adam and bassoonist Monica Ellis in witty conversation) with a more classically rhapsodic tone poem.

Ellis's deep, reedy bassoon tone and Scott's warm horn anchored the ensemble's big sound, while their extroverted phrasing was equally fluent in avant-garde music. Czech-born Karel Husa's "Five Poems" fashion stylized bird calls into often dense rhetoric; a common gesture, a slow buildup of intensity suddenly cut off, was invariably well paced. The Hungarian-born György Ligeti's "Ten Pieces" are even more dramatically fraught, perched at extremes of volume, range, and technical possibility; if the group too-sharply outlined Ligeti's eerie clouds of dissonance, that steel edge was ideally suited to his more volatile outbursts. (Toyin Spellman-Diaz's skittering oboe in the sixth piece was especially deft.)

Coleman's "Suite: Portraits of Josephine" derives from a collaborative multimedia celebration of Josephine Baker, the trailblazing African-American singer and dancer who abandoned American segregation for 1920s Paris, where her popularity made her American-accented French not just forgivable, but fashionable. Alternating between engaging historical pastiche (the slow drag of "Ol' St. Louis," a brightly syncopated "Paris 1925") and more impressionistic movements (including a wistful reminiscence of Baker's greatest hit, "J'ai deux amours"), the suite highlighted Coleman's talent for delineating form and emotion with shifts between ingeniously varied instrumental combinations.

Interestingly, only the closing number (Scott's driving arrangement of Astor Piazzolla's "Libertango") and an encore (Coleman's sweetly swinging "Umoja") were not by or about expatriates and exiles. The repertoire - classical to jazz, via eastern Europe, Latin America, and an African-American in Paris - and the optimistically exuberant performance echoed the multicultural stew of post-WWI Europe, when a continent devastated by mechanized violence sought a vision of modern life that was more hopeful than destructive. Maybe the emergence of such eclectically-minded groups as Imani Winds shows how hard we're still looking.

Imani Winds

At: Jordan Hall, Saturday

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