Man courtship, COVID-19 cashier. At the last two concerts I attended, none of the pre-announced music was played. Everything was changed.
On February 1, the Jupiter String Quartet, in residence at the University of Illinois, was to have played with Imani Winds. But a member of the quartet tested positive for COVID-19, so Imani Winds went ahead with a separate program alone.
At the UI Symphony concert on February 9, three works by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein were to be performed. On the day of the concert, I checked the program online, and it was changed to Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 3. At that concert, conductor William Eddins explained that UI’s switch to distance learning in the first week of the semester and blizzard had disrupted the orchestra’s rehearsal schedule.
Imani Winds has a lineup of the traditional wind quintet, four woodwinds and a horn. Its members are Brandon Patrick George, flute; Toyin Spellman-Diaz, oboe; Mark Dover, clarinet; Kevin Newton, French horn; and Monica Ellis, bassoon. Their program was entitled “The Beauty of Strife”, with the motto “Political conflicts, world crisis, human atrocities will always yield significant art.” It began with a performance of the South African national anthem, “Nikosi si ke Leli” (“Lord Bless Africa”) by Enoch Manyaki Sontonga, as arranged by Valerie Coleman.
The first part of the program was devoted to wind quintet arrangements of two well-known works. The first was the famous hornist Mason Jones’ version of Maurice Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin”, originally written for piano, at the time most of it orchestrated by Ravel. The piece is a suite of dances from the time of François Couperin (1668-1733), and each movement was dedicated to a musician friend of Ravel, who died in World War I. With well-mixed voices, Imani played with excellent ensemble discipline. Many of the phrases in this soft music reminded me of Ravel’s instrumentation in his “Mother Goose Suite”.
The other well-known work was perhaps Dimitri Shostakovich’s best-known string quartet, No. 8, op. 110, as heard in the woodwind quintet version by Mark Popkin. In 1960, Shostakovich visited Dresden, Germany, a city destroyed by British and American bombers in February 1945. He was shocked by the scale of the devastation, and he dedicated his 8th Quartet “To the Victims of Fascism and War.” Unlike the Ravel work, this quartet is filled with passages of painful sympathy, anger, and desolation. The Imani group gave a deeply moving reading, especially with the apocalyptic “knocks on the door” passages in the fourth movement.
Of the other pieces played, let me highlight the “Wind Quintet”, Op. 10 by the Moravian-Jewish composer Pavel Haas (1899-1944). Haas was the most talented student of the great composer Leos Janacek, both from the province of Moravia, now part of the Czech Republic. Haas wrote works in many genres based on folk music, Jewish song and jazz, and his “Wind Quintet” was written in 1929. In 1941 he was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where he composed some music before being transferred to Auschwitz in 1944, where he was killed.
In their emotionally engaged performance, the Imani musicians evoked the Jewish flavor of the second “Preghiera” (“Prayer”) movement. From the origin of the name “Imani” my guess is that this word in Swahili means “peace.”
At the concert on February 9, conductor William Eddins drew from the student players from the UI Symphony an uplifting performance of Brahms’ Third Symphony. This work has a reputation for presenting difficulties to its interpreters. Its external movements are rippling with violent emotions, but each of them escapes in autumn melancholy.
In this performance, the horns and clarinets haunted especially in Brahms’ longing passages, and they all joined in the final climactic outburst with trombones and tympani leading. Eddins promised to play at the next concert, the music canceled from this one. On March 11, Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” will be a special melodic warning of that season.
John Frayne hosts ‘Classics of the Phonograph’ on Saturdays on WILL-FM and teaches retirement at UI. He can be met at [email protected].