Imani Winds serve up energy in UC debut - January 23, 2017

The presidential inauguration wasn’t the only changing of the guard to take place yesterday.

The Imani Winds made their debut in the University of Chicago Presents series Friday night at Mandel Hall. As the new Don Michael Randel Ensemble in Residence, Imani follows the Pacifica Quartet, who were UC’s ensemble in residence for 18 years.

Following the superb and popular Pacifica Quartet in that post is no easy feat, and the new ensemble’s debut was made more difficult by circumstances. Imani flutist Valerie Coleman injured her shoulder earlier this week and was unable to perform. Fortunately, Tim Munro was available and, as one of Chicago’s most deft and versatile musicians, the Australian flutist filled in gracefully, as if he had been playing with the other Imani members for years.

The Imani Winds’ appointment comes at what seems like a time of transition for the University of Chicago’s venerable music series, now in its 73rd season. The series’ long-running Sunday chamber concerts were quietly eliminated last year; jazz programs have increased exponentially in recent seasons; and finally the music department has elected to replace a highly acclaimed classical string quartet with a lesser-known crossover group whose commitment to classical repertoire seems like an open question. Despite assurances from officials, it’s not hard to see why there has been growing concern among audience members that core classical repertory is in danger of losing its preeminence at these UC concerts.

Of the six works on the Imani program only two could be called classical, and those took up just 18 minutes of the evening, feeling somewhat obligatory. The rest were cast in a kind of populist, jazz-blended idiom. Nothing wrong with that but most of the music seemed more appropriate for the Jazz at Logan side of UC Presents rather than what is supposed to be itsclassical series.

That said, the Imani Winds made a largely admirable showing in their Mandel Hall debut. The selections were prefaced by introductions from Imani’s engaging members, the playing was lively and energetic and the group showed themselves capable musicians and, in the case of oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz and clarinetist Mark Dover, considerably more than that.

Imani also benefits from having two composers in the group. Hornist Jeff Scott’s Startin’ Sumthin’got the evening off to a fizzing start, segueing from short phrases broken up by rests into uptempo, syncopated drive.

Valerie Coleman’s Rubispheres No. 1 is a wind trio, cast in three parts for flute, clarinet and bassoon. As with many jazz-influenced pieces, the outer movements (“DROM” and “Revival”) center on fast riffs batted back and forth between the players, and Munro, Dover and bassoonist Monica Ellis were up to all the populist challenges. A more subdued middle Serenade offers an introspective lullaby, inspired by Coleman’s daughter.

While the playing was game and committed, it was also rough in tuttis and often fuzzy, neither as polished nor as blended as one would expect from any standard classical group.

Elliott Carter’s microbial Woodwind Quintet No. 1 is one of his earliest and most approachable works. While the Imani members threw off the bravura sections with impressive fire, one couldn’t help thinking that more concentrated and precise playing would have made a stronger impact in this 8-minute miniature.

Similarly in Ruth Crawford Seeger’s forward-looking Suite for Wind Quintet, the playing was alert to Seeger’s mix of mordant serialism with galumphing energy. But here too the playing felt too generalized, lacking refinement in tuttis and with little dynamic nuance.

Even in their home repertory, one wanted more polish and focused expression.  Paquito d’Rivera’sKites was written for Imani, yet one felt there was more expressive potential and depth in these two movements inspired by Cuban life than the players conveyed, with the playing somewhat bland and dynamics hovering at a steady mezzoforte.

Bristling energy appears to be Imani’s forte and the closing Dance Mediterranea by Simon Shaheen (arranged by Jeff Scott), certainly served up a virtuosic showcase. The players blazed through the motoric, hard-charging music and the muezzin-like solos were handled with febrile flair and panache.

A bluesy arrangement of “Go Tell it on the Mountain” was the uptempo encore.

---Lawrence A. Johnson