Wind quintets are hard to find. So Imani Winds makes their own.
Some they steal. Some they transform. Some they write themselves. But no matter where they come from, the Imanis play the heck out of them.
The adventurous ensemble graced the stage at the Breakers Friday evening, part of the ongoing Newport Music Festival, and exhilarated the audience with five delicious works.
Delicious, and different. Variety is the key to the group’s repertory. Each piece — arrangements of works by Rimsky-Korsakov, Piazzolla, and Simon Shaheen; a Poulenc sextet (with pianist Sara Davis Buechner); and a new composition by Valerie Coleman — grabbed the audience and didn’t let go.
Imani — Monica Ellis, bassoon; Jeff Scott, French horn; Toyin Spellman-Diaz, oboe; Mark Dover, clarinet; and Julietta Curenton, flute — opened with Coleman’s snappy “Red Clay and Mississippi Delta,” an extended jam with brief improvisations.
Jonathan Russell’s ambitious arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral masterpiece “Scheherazade” followed. Boiling almost an hour’s worth of music into 20 minutes — and boiling an entire orchestra down to five wind instruments in the process — requires some compromises.
Russell’s arrangement focused on the famous melodic lines at the expense of development. He cleverly moved the lead lines around: flute creates the melody in the opening movement, bassoon in the second, oboe in the third, and the ensemble as a whole in the finale. In the hands of these superior players, the compromises weren’t really noticed.
Scott’s arrangement of a string bass “Tango Nuevo” by Astor Piazzolla — Scott placed the bass lead in the bassoon, but didn’t leave any of the quintet out of the action — truly sounded like it made sense for five winds. Ellis’s bassoon certainly anchored the work, but lyrical lines worked above and below. Scott’s arrangement created a truly organic feeling.
Poulenc’s sextet was written for five wind, and piano, and this wild work encapsulated Imani’s approach. Poulenc embraced many styles — any style. Jazz. Mozart-like delicacies. Bach counterpoint. Atonality. And something like Dixieland. It was a compelling rollick, driven along by Buechner’s formidable piano part.
Shaheen’s “Dance Mediterranea,” also arranged by Scott, blended another set of styles — Middle Eastern. Klezmer hints shifted quickly to Northern African micro-scales, improvisations and even rock-style rai music.
It all worked—because Imani has the skills to make it work.
The Newport Music Festival runs through July 22 at various locations in Newport. Tickets range from free to $75, not including the gala. Call (404) 849-0700 or visit www.newportmusic.org.
Keith Powers covers music and the arts for the GateHouse papers and WBUR’s The ARTery.
— On Twitter: @PowersKeith