Fresh, jazzy winds blow over Mandel Hall

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Don Michael Randel was the twelfth president of the University of Chicago, serving from 2000 to 2006. As an academic, he is a musicologist, and one of his legacies has been the creation of a Don Michael Randel Ensemble in Residence. This program was made possible by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The ensemble in residence not only performs at the university but also interacts with students, faculty and staff.

The current ensemble in residence is a young chamber group, the Imani Winds, who will be in residence for the next two years. They performed at Mandel Hall on Friday night as part of the University of Chicago Presents Classic Concert Series.

This wind ensemble is made up of Valerie Coleman (flute), Toyin Spellman-Diaz (oboe), Mark Dover (clarinet), Jeff Scott (French horn), and Monica Ellis (bassoon). Because Coleman experienced an injury to her shoulder shortly before the concert, Chicago-based Tim Munro agreed to step in for this concert. The Australian-born Munro is known to Hyde Park audiences for his work as flutist from 2006 to 2015 with eighth blackbird. With less than a week to prepare, he played wonderfully and appeared to fit in perfectly with the rest of the Imani musicians.

The concert opened with “Startin’ Sumthin’” by Imani musician Jeff Scott. His program notes to the five-minute work describe it as a modern take on ragtime, “emphasis on Ragged!” It was jazzy and syncopated and full of energetic bursts. Scott and Ellis provided a secure anchor with their low-voiced riffs while the other members of the ensemble soared through this pleasing confection.

The Woodwind Quintet No. 1 by Elliot Carter (dedicated by the composer to one of the 20th century’s most active teachers, Nadia Boulanger) gave the ensemble an opportunity to offer a shout out to outgoing President Barack Obama, as they dedicated their performance to him.

The Imani Winds brought bright sound and interesting textures to the performance. The second (and final) movement had lots of bounce and a strong pulse. It ended with a charming bit of humor.

The longest work in the concert was “Kites” by Cuban composer Paquito D’Rivera. Originally written for performance by the Imani Winds and the composer (on the piano), the Mandel Hall concert featured an arrangement by Imani member Valerie Coleman which dispensed with the keyboard.

Early on, it featured buoyant work by Ellis on the bassoon and bold spurts by Scott on French horn. D’Rivera infused the piece with elements of Latin jazz and the quintet was completely at home with the sound. The airiness and sense of invigoration was clearly communicated. It is genial music and had particular fizz at the conclusion.

After the intermission the ensemble took on the Suite for Wind Quintet by Ruth Crawford Seeger. Based on spoken remarks just before the performance, it appears that the Imani residency is already a two-way street, as we were told that this work was brought to their attention by members of the university’s music department.

There was admirably dense sound from the bassoon and detailed work from Munro on flute. The middle movement was deliciously mysterious and mystical. The final movement was pert, at times even sly, and the shifting tempi were expertly realized.

Although Valerie Coleman was unable to play that night, she was still represented on the program with her Rubispheres No. 1 for Wind Trio. This piece for flute, clarinet and bassoon has an opening movement which creates a sense of urgency. The music was taut, rather like the soundtrack to a film thriller. The final two movements were less successful. The middle, written as a lullaby, was entirely too sleepy and at times even dull. The final movement had lots of energy but seemed scant on ideas. Before the piece began I wondered what the composer meant when she wrote in the program notes, “I felt motivated to reshape and mold the often negative narrative of woodwind chamber music into one that is relevant to today.” After the hearing the piece, I was none the wiser.

Dance Mediterranea by Simon Shaheen (arranged by Jeff Scott) opened with a hypnotic flute solo by Munro. It featured refined work by Dover on the clarinet and perky sound from Spellman-Diaz on oboe. The dance rhythms were infectious and the Middle Eastern music ideas were weaved into the work in a pleasing way.

The group offered an upbeat, jazzy rendition of “Go, Tell it on the Mountain” for an encore.

It was a well-performed concert featuring a mix of modern classical music and jazz. If your taste in music doesn’t run to jazz, you will have found it enlightening although less than completely satisfying.

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The Chicago Ensemble has announced a workshop for adult amateur players to take place Sun., Mar. 26.

It is an all-day affair at Pianoforte Chicago (1335 S. Michigan Ave.) open to piano, string, and woodwind players with some proficiency at their instrument. Coaches at the workshop will be pianist Gerald Rizzer (founder and artistic director of the Chicago Ensemble), flutist Susan Levitan (former flutist with the Lyric Opera Orchestra), Mathias Tacke (formerly of the Vermeer Quartet), as well as cellist Andrew Snow, and clarinetist Elizandro Garcia-Montoya. Application deadline is Feb. 15.

For more information email Gerald Rizzer at geraldrizzer@msn.com.