Quintet Imani Winds Crafts New Interpretation of Chamber Traditionalism

Ava Bravata-Keating

Sunday afternoons are usually uninspiring, consumed by half hearted studying, intermittent napping or other forms of aimless dawdling, but last Sunday’s performance by chamber quintet Imani Winds ripped through the stupor of this end-of-the-weekend limbo. The non-traditional mélange of original compositions, reconstructed orchestral classics and jazz-flavored chamber music kept the Finney Chapel audience on its toes while still delivering the polished performance expected from Oberlin’s Artist Recital Series. Meanwhile, the group’s collaboration with lauded pianist Gilbert Kalish added diversity to an otherwise wind-dominated program.

Curtain-opener “Startin’ Sumthin’” by Imani Winds’s own Jeff Scott kicked off the show with punchy jazz motifs atop a classical backdrop. The rapid chromatic runaround of the flute and clarinet contrasted starkly with the distant call of French horn and unexpected bassoon solo. The quintet flowed gracefully from one musical tradition to another, ultimately ending on a sustained note à la big-band jazz.

Dressed in stunning turquoise and bright red gowns, bassoonist Monica Ellis, OC ’95, and oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz, OC ’94, shared with the audience the excitement they felt to be playing on the same stage where they had witnessed many a recital during their college years. The program, they said, consisted primarily of pieces the pair had been introduced to at Oberlin. Spellman-Diaz mentioned that she had first heard Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring played on the very stage on which she was standing, but hadn’t had the pleasure of performing it at Oberlin until now. Imani Winds gave Stravinsky’s classic a fresh spin by condensing the piece, written for a full orchestra, to an arrangement for only five instruments. What the quintet lacked in numbers they compensated for with reimagined voicings for the instruments they did have; oboe adopted the trumpet’s piercing intensity as the bassoon mimicked the booming timpani usually essential for the masterpiece’s explosive conclusion. At the start of the piece, the group expressed the hope that its performance would coax spring to come to Ohio a little sooner. However, by the end of the piece, the mood of the audience suggested that they would gladly have winter drag on if it would only keep Imani Winds playing.

The evening’s program choices incorporated both the edgy and the melodic, from the traditionally celebrated to the personally commissioned. The group even altered the program at the last minute to bolster the traditional flavor of their concert, as well as to take advantage of pianist Kalish’s talents; the scheduled  “Dumesnil Trio” by the group’s own Valerie Coleman was switched out for the Mozart Wind Quintet in E flat. Afterwards, a commissioned work titled “Cane,” by Houston native Jason Moran, transported Finney Chapel into a sugarcane plantation slave’s narrative. The work captured the experience of a grueling trip from Togo to Natchitoches, an abrupt escape from the fields and then a tender love song from a mother to her children still in captivity. The piece finished with “Natchitoches to New York,” a song infused with a distinct New Orleans feel, brass pumping and winds wailing.

To close the concert, the group played “Libertango,” composed by Astor Piazzolla and arranged for winds by Jeff Scott. “Libertango” was a fresh take on tango, written specifically for the concert hall, not the dance floor. Nonetheless, the most difficult challenge of that Sunday afternoon was to keep from dancing. In Swahili, imani means “hope and belief,” and Imani Winds inspired both of these qualities in the audience — hope for the future of chamber music and belief that if they just keep listening, Monday might come a little more slowly.