A classical group on the edge of crossover, the five-member Imani Winds celebrated African American History Month on Sunday with a performance of singular individual artistry and cohesive ensemble at the National Academy of Sciences. Coming from African American and Latin American backgrounds, the New York-based group consists of flute, oboe, clarinet, French horn and bassoon. Imani’s programs largely veer away from the customary European classical and romantic wind quintet fare, instead favoring new compositions drawing from African, Latin American and American musical styles and idioms.
Except for Paul Hindemith’s austere but humorous Kleine Kammermusik, Op. 24, Sunday’s works pushed European classical structure and style to the side, virtually creating new musical idioms. Yet the group echoes the fresh plein-air sound of cool breezes and incisive energy that has marked outdoor wind ensembles since Mozart’s day.
The concert opened with “Red Clay Mississippi Delta,” by Valerie Coleman (Imani’s flutist), Narong Prangcharoen’s “Shadow,” Karel Husa’s “Five Poems,” Julio Medaglia’s “Suite Belle Epoque in Sud-Amerika” and “Dance Mediterranea” of Simon Shaheen, arranged for the group by Imani’s horn player, Jeff Scott. All these pieces demand high-speed technical virtuosity. Imani carried if off easily.
Coleman’s piece romps between playful lightning-quick scale passages and slow, swaggering blues episodes. A Thai native, Prangchaeron calls for enticing micro-melodic intervals and flutter-tonguing supported by sustained chords lingering underneath. Inspired by bird calls, Czech composer Husa projects images of aviary “feelings” with peppy trills and tremolos for a “Happy Bird” or the dissonant turmoil of “Fighting Birds.” Born in Brazil, Medaglia reflects his Latin heritage with a seductive tango met head-on by a swaggering waltz and capped by a zesty high clarinet. In Hindemith’s piece, full of his signature counterpoint, every player had a chance to shine, with solos indulging in nonstop buffoonery. Palestinian composer Shaheen bases his work on Middle Eastern melodic patterns, rhythms and drum effects.