A large, enthusiastic audience braved the cold Wednesday night to hear the Imani Winds at the Kennedy Center, and it’s easy to understand why the longtime quintet is such a draw.
Imani has been commissioning new work for 12 years, with a focus on composers of color and, more recently, female composers of color. Each member — flutist Brandon Patrick George, oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz (a Washington native), clarinetist Mark Dover, French hornist Jeff Scott and bassoonist Monica Ellis — is a virtuoso. But with their dazzling ensemble playing and easy engagement with the audience, the whole is vastly more than the sum of its parts. Two hours of new and unfamiliar music flew by.
Henry Threadgill’s “2.6 Pentadactyl,” commissioned by the Kennedy Center and University of Chicago and written for Imani, had its Washington premiere. Threadgill is renowned as a sax and flute player as well as a composer, and his comfort writing for winds was evident throughout. Laced with opportunities for individual improvisation, “2.6 Pentadactyl” veered between unanimity of movement and a circling constellation of sound and color, creating an aural feast.
A thoughtful “Wind Quintet,” by the prolific MIT-based composer John Harbison, unfolding in five movements, added a leavening of intellectual rigor and piquant dissonance to the program. Lalo Schifrin’s sleek and polished “La Nouvelle Orleans” evoked the famous funeral processions of New Orleans, somber on the way to the graveside and celebratory on the way back.
Especially compelling was “The Light Is the Same” by the Indian-American composer Reena Esmail. She took as her inspiration lines of the 13th-century Sufi poet Rumi: “Religions are many/ But God is one/ The lamps may be different/ But the light is the same.” With highly ornamented lines reminiscent of Hindustani singing, Esmail wove textures that seemed like the musical equivalent of translucent silk, rustling in a gentle breeze.
“Startin Sumthin,” a witty, rhythmically intricate take on ragtime by Scott opened the program. “Tzigane” by the founding flutist of the ensemble, Valerie Coleman, wrapped up an evening of committed, communicative music-making.
It was exhilarating.