As a part of the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild’s Masters Series, the Imani Winds wind quintet visited Raleigh’s Fletcher Opera Theater. The name of the group comes from the Swahili word for “faith,” reflecting the ensemble’s common goal of music in spite of – and because of – their cultural backgrounds. The Imani Winds strive to promote diversity through music, and this concert certainly furthered that mission. The program, entitled “Voyage,” featured music from such diverse cultures as Hungary, the Middle East, and Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Members Toyin Spellman-Diaz and Monica Ellis gave a pre-concert lecture about their extensive educational touring, how they came together as an ensemble, and the way that their races have influenced their programming and interpretive choices. Diaz and Ellis, along with flutist/composer Valerie Coleman, clarinetist Mariam Adams, and French hornist and composer Jeff Scott, are all African-American and Latino and proud of their heritage. They explained that one method of eliminating racial prejudices is being proud of their own heritages and promoting the music that their ancestors developed. This "Voyage" began as an exploration of their own cultures and spiraled out into others, communicating a timeless message of the acceptance of diversity.
The colorful program began with the rhythmic, high-energy "Tsigane," composed by Imani’s flutist Valerie Coleman. Inspired by traditional Romani people – more commonly known as “gypsies” – Coleman’s work featured enthusiastic solos across the ensemble. "Tsigane" showed how the ensemble as a whole shared a flexibility of rhythm and time while also showcasing the individual talent of each player with the perfect balance and blend of all parts which chamber ensembles strive for over years. Apparently, sixteen years of the same players’ hard work together can yield fantastic results!
The next piece on the program was György Ligeti’s Sechs Bagatellen, six movements that cover a wide range of emotional content, from playful and actually drawing laughter from the audience, to jarring and at times disturbing, to graceful and introspective. This dynamic performance helped convey the emotional expression of a composer trapped in a Soviet nation he did not agree with, especially in the Adagio Mesto movement, which was labeled “Béla Bartók in memoriam.”
Moving from Hungary to Czechoslovakia, Imani performed Karel Husa’s Five Poems for Wind Quintet. The work is an abstract, programmatic depiction of birds. Between virtuosic solos in the upper winds including flutter tonguing and pitch bending, to stopped French horn techniques, to trills, every bit of the work contributed to the bird theme. The continuous sounds interjected from different voices made it actually sound like the players were fighting, until they moved into the last movement. The “Bird Flying High Overhead” movement ended the work majestically if not harmoniously. It was pleasant like birdsong but without traditional harmony, capturing the organic, expressive nature of birds.
Coleman next introduced another of her compositions, “Rubispheres” for flute, clarinet, and bassoon. She explained that this work “is still a baby” and was originally composed for a club show. The work is rhythmic and funky, in an avant-garde, modern style. It fit into the voyage as a reflection of “rockin’ it out in the Lower East Side” in Manhattan.
The “meat and potatoes and gravy of the concert” came next, as introduced by Diaz: Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, arranged for wind quintet by Jonathan Russell. This twenty-minute reduction was true to the original orchestration, with masterfully performed renditions of the iconic solo bassoon, clarinet, and oboe lines in the opening movement. So much sound came out of these five players that it was at times hard to believe that they were not a full orchestra! At this centennial year of Stravinsky’s work, the Imani Winds reminded the audience that the original premiere started a literal riot in Paris in 1913. At once grotesque, mystical, and wondrous, this work continues a hundred years later to create its own inherent beauty. The ensemble should be proud to be helping celebrate the fact that we can now appreciate instead of protest things that are new and different. This work was no exception.
The final piece on the program, an arrangement of Simon Shaheen’s “Dance Mediterranea” by Imani’s horn player Jeff Scott, is an Arabic work that evokes images of flying carpets, genies, and dancing. This energetic closing piece for a vastly diverse and thought-provoking concert demanded an encore, which the performers graciously provided. They closed with a favorite trademark, “Umoja,” which in Swahili means “unity.” This delightful encore served as a final encapsulation of the cultural diversity and appreciation that Imani Winds evoked.