In terms of an ensemble profoundly shaking up a repertoire, the string quartet has the Kronos Quartet, and contemporary chamber music has had Speculum Musicae. The woodwind quintet right now is lucky to have Imani Winds, which played Sunday afternoon for what the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society said was the society's final concert in the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Van Pelt Auditorium before the 400-seat hall is demolished for the next phase of museum renovations. (A museum spokesperson could not confirm plans for demolition.)
Imani itself is a bit remade these days. If the group's original concert here in January had not been snowed out, clarinetist Mariam Adam would have been with them. Mark Dover has now taken over, and Sunday he seemed a smart choice.
Imani has expanded the repertoire with commissions and new works penned by its own members. These works have stretched the genre into an entirely different universe of sound possibilities, and the whole realm was laid out for listeners Sunday. An abbreviated version of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade was probably the most traditional work Imani has done over its many years of playing here. The arrangement passed out the violin solos to various instruments, and gave Dover a chance to become the harp with deft flicks of clarinet glissando.
Imani used a fair amount of rubato in the Rimsky, and in other works flexibilities of all sorts flourished. Bassoonist Monica Ellis was all over her instrument, evoking a hard-rock electric guitar solo, in Anders Hillborg's Six Pieces for Wind Quintet (2007). It's hard to smile when you're playing a wind instrument, but all five managed it while trading solos in Paquito D'Rivera's A Farewell Mambo, where subtle rhythmic manipulations added a layer of swing. Pitch itself bent to the maqam, the Arabic scale, in Simon Shaheen's Dance Mediterranea, arranged by horn player Jeff Scott, where bass instruments repeated a pattern over which soprano ones whispered improvisatory-sounding solos.
Most impressive, all over, were the incredibly varied total ensemble sounds the group authored from piece to piece, and within pieces. There's a big, vivacious, steel-belt of a sound Imani gets when playing at the top of its lungs that is most appealing. It came at the end of the encore - "Go Tell It On the Mountain" arranged by flutist Valerie Coleman - and it's a sound all their own. As the group approaches the end of its second decade, this might be what triumph sounds like.