By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic
The Imani Winds completed their first year as the Don Michael Randel Ensemble in Residence at the University of Chicago at a concert last Wednesday. Held under the auspices of the University of Chicago Presents, the five-member group performed at the Logan Center in an evening of music celebrating the centenary of the birth of poet Gwendolyn Brooks.
Imani Winds opened the concert with an original composition by group member and French horn player Jeff Scott. “Titilayo”(Yoruba for “eternal joy”) began with clarinetist Mark Dover setting the effervescent mood. This call and response piece was peppy and good fun.
This was followed by another original work by a member of the quintet. Valerie Coleman’s “Suite: Portraits of Josephine”is a piece inspired by Josephine Baker based on an eight movement work, reduced in this suite to only four movements. “St. Louis”had lots of hustle and bustle while “Les Milandes,”about Baker’s chateau, was sadly ponderous and meandering. “Paris 1925”was full of energy and featured captivating work by oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz. The concluding movement, “Thank you Josephine,”was the prettiest part of the work.
The first half of the concert ended with a work by Wayne Shorter, written especially for Imani Winds. “Terra Incognita”is an interesting jazz work that displayed the quintet’s ability to traverse varied territories.
After the intermission there three works all written for Imani Winds. “Cane”is a four-movement piece by jazz musician Jason Moran which he notes was inspired by “the landscape and sounds of Cane River, Louisiana”where his ancestors lived, dating back to the early 1700s.
The opening “Togo to Natchitoches”effectively invokes the pain of the Middle Passage. “Coin Coin’s narrative”is a repetitive section highlighting the tedious nature of the forced work of slaves. This section featured stylish work by Imani’s bassoonist Monica Ellis and invoked thoughts of the heaviness of the slaves’ labors. “Gens libre de couleur”had both a sense of hope but also of anguish and Dover put on display some lovely clarinet work. The concluding “Natchitoches to New York”was wild and exultant, playful and sensuous. It ended with the musical equivalent of a smile and brought some members of the audience to laughter with the satisfying ending.
The final two works on the program were inspired by Gwendolyn Brooks. (A third was scheduled, but was omitted as it has not yet been completed.)
“Blooming”is a work by young composer Courtney Bryan, who was present that night and spoke very briefly about the piece before Imani played it. She said it was inspired by Brooks’s “The Second Sermon on the Warpland.”
It had its loud portions (celebrating a part of the Brooks poem) and captures the sense of the whirlwind which Brooks wrote about. Scott’s blustery French horn was notably intriguing. It was a pleasing little five-minute piece, making Bryan a composer to watch in the future.
The concert closed with another work by Imani Winds flutist Valerie Coleman. “Bronzeville,”a sextet for winds and piano saw pianist Alex Brown join the quintet. Coleman’s 15-minute work is based on selected poems from two books by Brooks: “Bronzeville Boys and Girls”and “A Street in Bronzeville.”
The piece includes the reading of three Brooks poems, including a recording of the poet reciting one her most famous pieces, “We Real Cool.”Different members of the ensemble also recited poetry as the piece proceeded.
Coleman experiments with Morse Code in this work, which contributed an interesting rhythmic element and added zest to a piece already imbued with lots of spark.
For an encore, the quintet offered the same jazzy arrangement of “Go Tell it on the Mountain”that they used to end their January performance in Mandel Hall. Like then, it was full of life and love.¬†