The history of North American music, at least since the Civil War is rife with tales of talented people of Valerie Coleman's "skin tone" (her words) being turned away from the academy and finding refuge in the worlds of jazz, blues and pop. Coleman, who calls herself "an imagery kind of gal" founded Imani Winds in 1997 to put forth a utopian vision where those worlds are one with western classical music.
Such a thing could be a disaster, but the virtuosity of Coleman and her compatriots in the quintet along with that undefinable concept of taste have made Imani a bright spot on the musical landscape. Their artistic conviction and excellence has brought notice from the Grammys - they were nominated in 2005 - and the legendary Wayne Shorter, who made a collaboration with Imani the centerpiece of his last album, Without A Net.
Last Tuesday, Victoria Bond's Cutting Edge Concerts series opened with a "composer portrait" of Valerie Coleman at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater featuring Imani and a host of other performers. The eight works included four world premieres and one New York premiere, all pieces composed since 2011. We first heard Danza de la Mariposa, a solo flute work played by Nathalie Joachim, ultra-stylish in a salmon dress and high heels. It's a brave player who takes on a piece written for the composer's own instrument but Joachim and her golden flute faced down the many challenges of the piece with aplomb. The butterfly's dance led Coleman to alternate breathy tones with fuller ones, and dense passages with more open textures to make for a distinctive portrait of the beautiful insect.
Next up was another portrait in sound - Lenox Avenue, completed earlier this year for an unusual quartet of clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. Comprised of four movements with descriptive titles, this was another example of Coleman translating images into sound. The piece was full of the life of the street, not only the music famously played there (Thelonious Monk is referenced in the second movement), but also its denizens, the good and the bad. Listening to Lenox Avenue, it became clear that like many great composers - Shostakovich comes to mind - Coleman has an uncanny understanding of the capabilities of different instruments, alone and in ensemble. The communication between sounds was absorbing and the sounds themselves were beautiful. The performers, all members of the Da Capo Chamber Players, seemed to be enjoying it at least as much as the audience.
Rubispheres followed, with Coleman on flute joined by her Imani colleagues Mariam Adam (clarinet) and Monica Ellis (bassoon). Consistently lively, the short piece was a showcase for Ellis's extraordinary technique. She may be one of the finest bassoon players around, with a supple sound at odds with that instruments ungainly reputation. The trio interacted in a variety of ways, at times jamming like a funk band, at others getting knotted up in thickets of notes as dense as anything coming from Vienna these days.
Before intermission, we heard Afro-Cuban Concerto for Wind Quintet, a work from 2001 in which Coleman transferred all the rhythms associated with that music - the clave, the rhumba, etc. - to the instruments of her group. Originally composed for orchestra, this stripped down version worked just fine. Jeff Scott (horn) and Toyin Spellman-Diaz (oboe) filled out the group to its full cohort and played flawlessly. Hearing "tribal" beats played on melodic instruments changes their relationship to our bodies, but I can't say I was sitting very still during the performance.
When the house lights went down again, we heard The Dawes Roll, another world premiere and a collaboration with Rochelle Small-Clifford, a soprano and songwriter. Accompanied by Dmitri Dover on piano, Small-Clifford not so much sang the songs asinhabited them, using gestures and facial expressions as effectively as a Kabuki master to bring us into her emotional world. The Dawes Roll was a census used to keep track of African-Americans either owned by Native Americans (think on that for a moment) or sharing their blood, so there were plenty of depths to plumb. While it is hard to imagine someone else singing these remarkable songs with the same commitment, they should be widely performed.
The Da Capo Chamber Players took the stage for the last premiere of the night, Freedman of the Five Civilized Tribes, a natural segue from the song cycle, in subject matter at least. Once again, Coleman's sure hand with orchestration utilized each of the players wonderfully for a rich piece that felt more expansive than its length. Like the other new works played, I'm hoping it's recorded soon so I can get to know it better.
Portraits Of Langston (2008) for flute, clarinet, piano and narrator was the penultimate work, a sort of call and response between poems and music. Tim Cain read the poems and, although he stumbled once, I felt like I understood Langston Hughes's use of repetition in a way that was never clear before. In short, Cain was a fantastic reader, the poems were well-chosen, and the music drew on the sounds of the Harlem Renaissance as an expert collage-maker might use printed materials of an earlier age.
Finally, the Imani Winds gathered once more to play Tzigane, full of energetic melodies and interplay. There was almost constant forward motion from beginning to end in this delightful work, which managed to avoid cliché while still being unmistakably inspired by Eastern European gypsy music. When it ended, there was a long, well-deserved ovation for Coleman and her players.
It had been a long concert and my head was still trying to make sense of all we had heard as we exited onto the rain-slicked streets of the upper west side. The blinking Don't Walk sign formed a pulse under the ostinato of traffic and when a cab stopped on a dime to pick us up I almost applauded. I was still in Coleman's utopia, where the world becomes music and music becomes the world. I hope to visit again soon.