If anybody deserves a lavish three-hour “composer portrait” concert, it’s Valerie Coleman. The esteemed Imani Winds flutist and founder got just that at Symphony Space in a program featuring her bandmates along with the Da Capo Chamber Players and other musicians. Coleman’s compositions bustle without being busy. They’re electric with color and rhythm, reflecting the New York milieu she represents. Balancing that kinetic energy is a somber side steeped in history, infused as much with the blues and gospel music as with classical and the avant garde. And as serious and in-your-face as her music can be – very in-your-face, if she feels like it – she can also be uproariously funny. There were several moments of LOL vaudevillian jousting during the performance that made for considerable relief from the intensity that permeated the rest of the show. Ultimately, Coleman’s music is deep, and the performers seized that and brought out all the rich color in a series of diverse chamber works as they flashed by, or resonated with a gritty, irony-drenched gravitas.
The night’s most spine-tingling moment of many might have been the tightly spiraling interplay between Coleman and clarinetistMichiyo Suzuki midway through an unselfconsciously haunting, Langston Hughes-inspired trio work (one of a half-dozen on the bill) with pianist Dmitri Dover. Or it could have been the Da Capos’ world premiere of Lenox Avenue, a fascinatingly boisterous cityscape that does for Harlem what Respighi did for Rome. The rousing, minutely jeweled closing partita Tzigane for Wind Quintet also delivered plenty of chromatically-charged thrills, notably from the Imanis’ Toyin Spellman-Diaz’s oboe, set up by longer, more expansive, suspenseful interludes.
The Imanis delivered an alternately rapt, darkly reflective and celebratory take of Coleman’s triptych, Afro-Cuban Concerto for Wind Quintet. Coleman said before the concert that she envisioned her ensemble as having more of the spirit of a brass band than a “light and fluffy” group, and this reaffirmed that she doesn’t have to worry about the latter ever being the case. The world premiere of Rubispheres, for the wind trio of Coleman and her bandmates – propulsive bassoonist Monica Ellis and the similarly incisive Mariam Adam on clarinet – followed a similar, dynamically charged trajectory, echoed later in the program by the DaCapos’ take of the blues-infused suite Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes. All three of those richly ambered, reflective works made a powerful contrast with the unfettered joie de vivre that had taken centerstage for so much of this fascinating and rewarding program.