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Imani Winds Enliven Princeton University Chapel With Their Innovative and Multicultural Program

Nancy Plum

Classical music is not just about Mozart anymore. Over the past few decades, many ensembles have been stretching their ranges to incorporate cross-cultural influences on classical music, including jazz and African or Caribbean elements. Imani Winds was founded in 1996 for just that purpose: to explore the links between European, African, and American musical traditions. Flutist Valerie Coleman, oboist Toyin Spellman, clarinetist Mariam Adam, hornist Jeff Scott and bassoonist Monica Ellis brought their multicultural approach to Princeton University Chapel last Tuesday night as part of the Princeton University Summer Concert Series.

Ensembles performing in the Chapel this summer have been both cursed and blessed by the space, with the choice of performing either on the floor in front of the huge choir area or up a level in better view, but not necessarily in better acoustics. Imani Winds opened their concert with A Call and Response by Margo Santamaria which was arranged by Ms. Coleman. Afro Blue demonstrated not only the ensemble's lack of stuffiness (no sitting primly behind music stands for these players) but also their ability to sing and their expectation that the audience be included in their performance.

Opening and closing the concert in the space in front of the choir produced the best sound in the Chapel; moving up into the choir for the five works in between (all of which dated from the 20th century) distanced the players from the audience and somewhat blurred the sound into the vaulted ceilings.

Imani Winds seems to specialize in the 20th century, the repertoire of which is limited for wind quintet. The five players are all excellent instrumentalists in their own right (with Ms. Coleman doubling on alto flute and Ms. Spellman on oboe d'amore), and together they work to bring this unusual European and Caribbean music to the forefront. Paquito D'Rivera's Aires Tropicales draws inspiration from traditional dances of the Caribbean, and the spirited playing of Imani Winds brought the dances to life. Mr. Scott's horn and Ms. Adam's clarinet playing floated down the Chapel's long hall, answered by Ms. Spellman's oboe d'amore. The quintet was commendable in its ability to start each of the seven short movements exactly on time and precisely in tune. The communication among the players was such that they were able to create their own jazz rhythms. The players were especially able to create a rich dark sonority in the fifth movement, "Dizzyness," featuring the alto flute, oboe d'amore and bassoon.

Gyorgi Ligeti is a Hungarian composer who has been getting a lot of well-deserved attention recently. His Sechs Bagatellen is a standard in the wind quintet repertory, and its percussive and Eastern nature was well conveyed by the ensemble. The quintet also experimented well with the dynamics in the six different movements.

If there was a flaw in this program, it was that this was a lot of complicated 20th century music at one time in a non-intimate space not always totally comfortable for intense and concentrated listening. Fred Ho's musical setting of Josephine Baker's Angels from the Rainbow was composed specifically for Imani Winds, depicting our world's diverse cultures through five musically linked vignettes. This piece was comparatively chordal and tonal, with musical effects to reflect the different cultures, including a Chinese quarter tone scale in the second movement "Yellow Angels."

The concert's encore, Umoja (meaning "unity"), was composed by Ms. Coleman, showing the depth of talent within this quintet. Imani Winds is a notable ensemble for a variety of reasons. Wind quintets are far fewer in number than their string counterparts, and this particular quintet has chosen to stay off the beaten musical track and push the boundaries of a traditional wind quintet repertoire. They strive to draw their audiences into the performance, and the compositional work of Ms. Coleman, as well as the other composers the quintet is commissioning, is adding to a repertory often viewed as scant. But first and foremost is the consummate musicianship of the Imani Winds members as they combine first-rate playing with an unusual approach to their instruments.

The final concert of the Princeton University Summer Concerts series is Wednesday, July 7 at 8 p.m. The Manhattan Brass Quintet will perform Handel, Copland, Bach, and Mozart. The performance is free to the public.


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