Breaths of fresh air – the Imani Winds hit Wellington

Chamber Music New Zealand presents:
Valerie Coleman (flute) / Toyin Spellman-Diaz (oboe)
Mark Dover (clarinet) / Jeff Scott (horn) /Monica Ellis (bassoon)

VALERIE COLEMAN – Red Clay and Mississippi Delta
RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (arr. Jonathan Russell) – Scheherazade
PIAZZOLLA (arr.Jeff Scott) – Contrabajissimo
NATALIE HUNT – Snapshots (CMNZ Commission)
PAQUITO D’RIVIERA – A Farewell Mambo
SIMON SHAHEEN (arr. Jeff Scott) – Dance Mediterranea

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington,

Monday 26th September 2017

This was the New York-based ensemble Imani Winds’ first concert in New Zealand as part of a 10-venue tour organised by CMNZ. Every member of the group during their introductions for each of the concert’s items conveyed considerable pleasure and excitement at being part of this inaugural visit by the ensemble to New Zealand. They’ve come with something of a reputation for being innovative and adventurous in their programming, as well as devoting considerable energies in developing outreach and education programmes, one of which makes up part of their touring schedule in Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin, a special “Musical Journey Around the World” concert.

The ensemble has two recognised composers in its ranks, flutist Valerie Coleman and horn-player Jeff Scott, both of whose efforts figured on this evening’s programme, an original work by Valerie Coleman, “Red Clay and Mississippi Delta”, and two arrangements by Jeff Scott, firstly of Astor Piazzolla’s “Contrabajissimo” (originally a work for double-bass and jazz ensemble, here recast for bassoon and winds), and then of Simon Shaleen’s “Dance Mediterranea”. Whether originally written for an ensemble featuring the oud, a short-necked lute-like instrument, Middle-Eastern in origin, which Shaheen learned to play in his youth, or for the violin (an instrument the composer later took up as well), it’s unclear – Scott’s arrangement here gives the opening solo passage to the flute, before sharing the material between the other instruments – I particularly liked the oboe’s exotic-sounding pitch-bending sequence at one point in the dance.

Another avowed commitment of the ensemble’s is to new music, of particular interest being works by composers of diverse backgrounds, part of Imani’s interest in bringing together European, American, African and Latin music traditions. In keeping with this philosophy the ensemble programmed a new work by New Zealand composer Natalie Hunt, a commission by Professor Jack Richards – itself something of a cross-cultural work, a three-part piece called “Snapshots” containing impressions of the composer’s first visit to Africa.

Mention must be made of a curiosity which the Imanis served up for us – composer/arranger and horn player Jeff Scott during the course of the evening had bemoaned to us the fact that the wind ensemble repertoire simply couldn’t compare with that for string ensembles in terms of quality and variety, and that ensembles therefore had turned to arrangements for winds of various pieces for “other” instruments, an example being an “arrangement” of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” for winds by a London-based clarinettist, conductor, composer and arranger Jonathan Russell. From the point of view of cleverness of adaptation, the exercise would, for some, have had its merits and its interest, but in my opinion the adaptation all but destroyed the original work through extensive cutting of the material, removing much of the narrative aspect and severely reducing the dramatic range and emotional scope of the music, and its ability to deliver. There must be any number of shorter pieces “out there” (some by Rimsky himself, come to think of it), which could have served the purpose just as well, and able to have been played more-or-less in full, rather than bowdlerised so savagely, as here. Yes, I’m missing the point of the exercise, I know – but even despite the presence of a few incidental delights of adaptation, I didn’t REALLY enjoy hearing one of my favourite pieces of orchestral music mutilated thus in public!

Enough of my tub-thumping! – time to turn to the other individual pieces in the concert! The Imanis began with the wind version of a hiss and a roar, Valerie Coleman’s work, “Red Clay and Mississippi Delta” opening with wild, raunchy declamations which then settled into a swinging, sultry rhythm, one that allowed lots of melismatic detailings within a relaxed pulse. There were forthright virtuoso clarinet irruptions, rapidly-fingered and skilfully-tongued bassoon passages, and numerous sly detailings from flute, oboe and horn, all with distinctive and ear-catching instrumental timbres. We were even invited to join in at one stage of the piece during a finger-clicking sequence, the composer turning to us and saying “You can help!” as the music insinuated its way forwards, our “cool” aspect by turns backed up with atmospheric solos, and colourfully decorated by sequences of riotous, swirling activity.

Astor Piazzolla’s “Contrabajissimo” was introduced by horn player Jeff Scott who had arranged the piece for wind quintet. He outlined the piece’s original genesis for us, how Piazzolla had been asked by the bass player in his quintet to write a piece that, for a change, gave his instrument some of the “limelight” instead of being relegated to its usual accompanying role, and how the composer wrote a work that he came to regard as his favourite – in fact “Contrabajissimo” was the only music played at the composer’s funeral! There was no doubt, Scott told us, that the only wind instrument capable of doing a string bass justice was the bassoon! Judging from the opening bars alone, with the bassoon immediately taking the soloist’s role in a kind of free-ranging dialogue with the clarinet, the work would have taxed Piazzolla’s double-bass player to the utmost! The dance that followed slyly and suggestively pushed the syncopated rhythms along and encouraged more and more excitement until the flute spearheaded a rallying call to which everyone was suddenly listening, and wanting to contribute. When the mischievous rhythms resumed I like the way the bassoon “spoke” to the rest of the ensemble via the player, Monica Ellis, who pointed her instrument every which way when she played her solos, like someone obviously wanting their voice to be heard, be it in tones of poetic wistfulness or with sharp bursts or assertive vigour!

We then heard the music of New Zealand composer Natalie Hunt, winner of the NZSO/Todd Foundation Young Composer Award in 2009, and the recipient of various commissions from groups such as the New Zealand String Quartet and The Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson. This was a work called “Snapshots”, commissioned by CMNZ for the Imani’s New Zealand tour, and written by the composer while travelling through Africa last year. In three parts, each of the individual pieces sought to capture the aspect and mood of a specific place, the first, Namib, evoking for us the Namibian Desert, where, in the composer’s words, “the landscape creeps and morphs, the rocks glow in the evening sun, and the night sky is brilliantly clear”. This first piece was, for me, the most focused of the three, its precision of detail and beautifully-contoured shape placing us vividly in a specific and spell-binding soundscape. The other two pieces seemed not quite on this level of focus, with details (the “extra” instruments) seeming to me appropriately ambient, but not having the same instinctive surety of placement I experienced throughout the opening piece.

In “Mosi-oya-Tunya” (presumably Swahili for “The Smoke Which Thunders”, the African name for the Victoria Falls) we heard the exotic sounds of the “thunder drum” (a brightly-decorated drum with a kind of rachet-tail, able to make a surprising amount of deep noise) and the “rain stick” (a hollow tube which contains rice or some such grain, or else small stones, and which can be turned on its end or otherwise moved to produce a kind of white ambient noise) adding their disparate tones to the ensemble’s wind roulades and the oboe’s splendidly isolated solo line – something of the awe and mystery of the place was conveyed to us by the ensemble, despite moments where I thought the players of the “special” instruments seemed a little uncertain of their dynamics or durations.

The third part, “Delta Dreams” I thought a kind of African “road music” , going somewhere in an engaging fashion, via syncopated rhythms and angular melodies. Jeff Scott forwent his horn in this movement to “play” a wine glass, supporting ostinati by clarinet and oboe, as the flute improvised, the players rolling the sounds jazzily and euphorically towards a “point” where the experience seemed to breast a peak and die away, with only the sound of the thunder drum left, a kind of resonance of departure, again I thought, a detail that would be stronger with some “firming up” of its actual place in the scheme of things.

Clarinettist Mark Dover described the next piece, “A Farewell Mambo (to Willy)” by Pasquito D’Riviera, as a kind of “melting-pot” of local ethnic and established classical traditions. D’Riviera is both a jazz- and Latin-music-performer (his autobiography sports the engaging title, “My Sax Life”) and his piece reflected these disparate, yet interactive strands of his creativity – I was reminded of Hindemith’s music in places by the droll, quasi-academism of some of the instrumental interactions within the framework of those mambo rhythms. The music allowed the instrumental timbres to ring out in places – we heard things like piccolo and clarinet arguing over primacy before the latter plunged into a riff-like kind of apoplexy, reducing the basssoon and horn to a kind of awed accompanying ostinato. The music resembled to my ears interaction between strong-willed individuals vying for their voices to be heard in getting across a particular aspect of the eponymous tribute “to Willy” (Guillermo Alvarez Guedes, a singer, stand-up comedian and record procducer, and obviously an iconic figure in the world of Latin American culture).

Concluding the programmed part of the concert was the aforementioned work “Dance Mediterranea”, by Palestinian-born American composer Simon Shaheen, in an arrangement by Jeff Scott for wind quintet. Shaheen himself plays the violin on a Facebook clip of a version of the “Dance Mediterranea”, showing the violin taking the lead in the work’s introduction, which was here given to the solo flute. Shaheen wanted a synthesis of styles from different parts of the Mediterranean world, hence the piece’s title (something of an “Arab Spring” in music!). After a sultry, evocative opening, the music gathered momentum and brought the other instruments into the picture, to sometimes volatile effect – there are lines with bending pitches, swirling melismas, whispered concourses and sudden sforzandi – these wild expressions of freedom came together most excitingly in a kind of amalgam of riotous energies at the piece’s conclusion.

We were sent home with the strains of a Negro Spiritual resounding in our ears, “Go, tell it on the mountain”, the music laid back at its very beginning, touching on different stylish references along the way (even Klezmer-like at one point), and then with everybody increasingly “playing out” towards the culminative “Yes, Lord! Alleluiah!” kind of gesture, without which salvation might not seem assured! Here, there was simply no doubt!

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