Young and hip Winds blow through classical repertoire
Imani Winds blew stylishly into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on Sunday afternoon, bearing an assortment of music old and new, and yes, borrowed and even blue.
Now recognized by many as the leading wind quintet in America, Imani revels in challenging preconceptions about “classical’’ music and musicians. All five of its members are young — no gray hairs in sight. All are African-American. Only one is male. Their on-stage demeanor is hip, casual, and chatty, with informatively humorous commentary by each player.
Imani has also shaken up ideas about the kind of music that wind quintets — oboe, flute, clarinet, bassoon, French horn — can present. For many, a wind quintet conjures up visions of beer garden oom-pah-pah or high school band practice. An Imani performance takes you to considerably more exotic destinations.
Imani flutist Valerie Coleman, oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz, clarinetist Mariam Adam, bassoonist Monica Ellis, and Jeff Scott on French horn opened with a virtuoso rendition of an arrangement of the scherzo from Felix Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’’ Ascending and descending scales cascaded back and forth at breakneck speed, tossed between the instruments like jugglers doing tricks. Here and throughout the recital, Ellis coaxed from the ungainly bassoon a wonderfully mellow, rich, and complex tone.
Then came something darker and more substantial: Jason Moran’s recently completed “Cane.’’ Drawing on the quintet’s shared African-American heritage, “Cane’’ takes its title from a Louisiana river and tells the tale of the slave Coin-Coin, who fought to gain her freedom in the 1700s. The most evocative of the four movements, the last, explodes with wailing bluesy sounds of New Orleans jazz and Mississippi River traffic. Moran is a composer to watch; he won one of this year’s MacArthur Foundation “genius’’ grants.
Something more familiar followed, Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s Quintet for Winds (1922). The neo-classical Menuet recalls Prokofiev’s jocular irony. In the finale, Nielsen spins out intricate variations on a solemn hymn tune, in the style of Charles Ives.
In the second half, Imani dazzled through the playful complexity of Elliott Carter’s “Eight Etudes and a Fantasy,’’ then waxed soulful in Derek Bermel’s “Wanderings,’’ a Middle Eastern travelogue mixing Jewish and Muslim motifs. Buenos Aires was the afternoon’s final destination, in Jeff Scott’s clever arrangement of a raucous tango by Argentine tango king Astor Piazzolla.
Harlow Robinson can be reached at email@example.com.