With a presence in Philadelphia that has made it seem almost indigenous, Imani Winds has managed the trick of paying homage to its woodwind quintet ancestors, while overhauling its repertoire with genre-bending commissions.
Friday night's visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, hosted by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, was a different matter altogether. The ensemble's adrenaline rush came by way of virtuosity in mid- to late-20th-century works unknown to all but insiders.
Virtuosity wasn't the point, though anyone who has struggled with a balky double-reed or a treacherous high horn passage had to marvel at this group's technique.
When Jeff Scott walked out on stage alone to intone the first notes of Mongo Santamaria's Afro Blue, you might have assumed that bending pitch to an extreme degree and finely modulated vibrato were all in a day's work for a hornist. Or that flutists routinely sing and play simultaneously with the kind of facility shown by Valerie Coleman (who was also responsible for resetting this 1959 work on her group).
The repertoire also challenged assumptions. Elliott Carter's 1948 Woodwind Quintet showed not the dense accretions of dissonance forming Carter's reputation, but a light, scherzolike score drawing from popular music. Pavel Haas, if he is known at all, is usually recalled as a composer who died in Auschwitz. Yet, here he was in a quintet from 1929 that, if it had something in common with Leos Janáek, was still of such originality, it left you once again wondering what might have been.
Innovative as they are, Imani made a gracious nod to their woodwind forefathers by giving credit to the Aspen Wind Quintet as commissioner of Paquito D'Rivera's Aires Tropicales from 1994. (The Aspen group also worked with Frank Zappa, to give you some idea of its bent.) Aires Tropicales could have advocates of no greater alacrity than the Imani players, whose evocations of Cuba, Venezuela, and Africa were dancerly to the point of seeming almost three-dimensional.