Without a Net: The Imani Winds in Concert

Imani 1

By Rob Tomaro, Classical Music Editor

When you walk onstage to perform with a chamber ensemble, you're flying without a net.  A musical net is any structure that provides the glue that holds everything together.   In an orchestra or a jazz band, for example, rhythm is pumped along by a percussion section and the underlying harmony is represented in the orchestration or, at the very least, the piano.  But when the Imani Winds took the stage at Beloit College in Beloit, Wisconsin, they didn't need drums or pianos or anything else. They created a dazzling landscape of color, and it came from the inside out.

The classical  woodwind quintet is comprised of flute, oboe, clarinet, french horn, and bassoon.  And what holds it together is an implicit, internalized pulse that passes through the members of the group like an invisible ball of energy they toss around in a circle. Hot potato. And it never gets dropped.

The traditional quintet repertoire has long been the bastion of the classical music establishment, a tradition that Imani turns on its ear in the first minute of performance. 

 In a time when it's fashionable to say you play "World Music" or "Third Stream Music" (and then come up short), the Imanis deliver.   They threw down with French composer Eugene Bozza's Scherzo for woodwind quintet, Op. 48, then swept us down to Latin America with Danza de Mediodia by Arturo Marquez and Suite Popular Brasiliera by Julio Medaglia,  then finished the first half with a stunning reading of film composer Lalo Schifrin's La Nouvelle Orleans.   

They didn't just wave the banner of eclecticism; they "became" the pieces they played as they took us on a tour of the world in music They transformed themselves into a New Orleans second line band, slow marching to the St. Louis Cemetery in stately order, then, after the deceased was interred, his spirit was celebrated raucously on the linedance home; topped off with a brilliant Dixieland clarinet cadenza, which the composer impishly gives not to the clarinet but to the oboe, played with unbridled joy by substitute oboist James Roe.  (I didn't  know it was even possible to do a lip smear on that instrument.) 

The second half began with a dauntingly complex piece by Eastern European modernist Gorgy Ligeti. It was introduced by a group member, who told the audience:  "These short pieces are laced throughout with humor by the composer, so if you hear something that strikes you as funny, please, feel free to laugh."   How refreshing.  In a time when classical music is struggling to free itself from its long overworn tea-party -and -pinky- in- the- air image, here's a group that tells you to trust your ears and let your hair down.  Be yourself and listen for yourself.  Don't let anybody tell you it ain't fun.

But it was Marian Adam's stunning evocation of the Klezmer clarinet that brought down the house at the end as they romped and schottisched their way through the 'Freyleka' movement from Gene Kavadlo's arrangement of Klezmer Dances.

I asked Jeff Scott, Imani's virtuosic hornist and one of its two resident composers, where he felt chamber music was going in the future:
"Chamber music composition is becoming an amalgam of many different genres that will produce a new style of music. It's in an experimental period.  For example, when we're collaborating with Jazz composers, they write for us because they are  trying to find their own voice through a different medium; speaking what they feel through a classical voice".
The other members of the Imani Winds are:  Valerie Coleman, founder and flutist, Monica Ellis, bassoon, and Toyin Spellman-Diaz, oboe.

If you see they're appearing anywhere within a reasonable, or even an unreasonable distance, don't think about it and don't waver, just go.  Your ears and your mojo will be the richer for it.