Imani Winds, Catalyst Quartet put a charge into topical “change”

March 6, 2022 at 3:02 pm

By Jonathan Blumhofer

The Imani Winds and Catalyst Quartet teamed up for the world premiere of Jesse Montgomery’s Sergeant McCauley Saturday night in Cambridge for the Celebrity Series. Photo: Robert Torres

Given the propensity of classical music presenters to stick with the tried and true over the timely and challenging, deviations from the norm often stand out. Saturday night’s Celebrity Series concert, a joint appearance by Imani Winds and Catalyst Quartet at Cambridge’s First Church, certainly did.

Titled “(im)migration: music of change,” the offerings dwelt, in the words of Imani Winds bassoonist Monica Ellis, on the idea of “personhood being challenged,” particularly through physical resettlement, both forced and voluntary. Charged though this theme may be, the performance unfolded as anything but a woke lecture. 

Indeed, the program was striking for how much common ground it located among disparate musics and peoples. Imani founder Valerie Coleman’s wind-quintet arrangement of Ramón “Mongo” Santamaría’s “Afro Blue” certainly drew out the number’s bluesy, soulful qualities. Yet it also illuminated the expressive complexity of call-and-response, as well as that technique’s similarities to Western polyphony.

The night’s oldest fare, performed by the Catalyst Quartet, was Florence Price’s Four Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint, string quartets that functioned as a fascinating bridge between the Old World and the vernacular traditions of Black America. Completed in 1947, the “folksongs” are, in fact, spirituals: “Go Down, Moses,” “Somebody’s Knockin’ at Yo’ Do’,” “Little David, Play on Yo’ Harp,” and “Joshua Fit de Battle ob Jericho.”

Price’s treatment of the tetralogy is firmly rooted in her traditional aesthetic. An accomplished church musician, there is a devotional quality to each of her settings as well as a clear respect for their original lyrics: the concluding phrase of “Somebody’s Knockin’,” for instance, illustrates the title with col legno bow strokes. Still, for all the Folksongs’ conventional qualities – at times they seem to channel Dvorak and, paradoxically, Ives at his tamer – much that is fervent and unsettled rumbles beneath their surfaces.

The Catalyst Quartet mined these darker aspects vigorously. The stormy tremolando figures at the end of “Go Down, Moses” surged violently. So did the short, passionate arrangement of “Joshua.”

Jessie Montgomery

Imani Winds and Catalyst Quartet joined forces onstage for the program’s newest piece, Jessie Montgomery’s nonet Sergeant McCauley, which also drew on the spirituals tradition. A Celebrity Series co-commission receiving its Boston premiere, this five-movement score is a concise musical portrait of the composer’s great-grandfather, one of the black “Buffalo Soldiers” serving in the American west after the Civil War, and his experiences in the Great Migration of the early 20th Century.

Like Price’s, Montgomery’s use of her source materials is subtle, drawing on songs common to the regions her forebear lived and worked in. Accordingly, her scoring, while idiomatic, sometimes heads in surprising directions. Sergeant McCauley’s string writing, for one, often explores the instruments’ percussive capabilities.

This tendency provides the opening movement, “Just now,” much of its shimmering beauty, just as it gives “Makina,” Sergeant McCauley’s extended technique-laden depiction of a Panamanian construction site, a distinctly vigorous spirit.

The Imanis and Catalysts brought plenty of color to the last movement: Its woozy climaxes and sultry harmonic turns were one of the night’s highlights. They also affectingly captured the score’s moments of suffering and mystery. “My Father, how long?” built with focused intensity and the cathartic last phrase of the finale, “Lay dis body down,” floated.

Equally ear-catching was Roberto Sierra’s Concierto de Cámara for wind quintet and string quartet. Written to commemorate Imani Winds’ tenth anniversary season in 2008, it’s a piece of breathtaking virtuosity and brilliant instrumentation.

For much of its duration, the nine players engage in fierce but good-natured jousting. The “Overtura” shifts quickly between driving, dancing figures and introspective, lyrical ones. Jaunty and extroverted, “Juegos” features raucous flute and clarinet exchanges over pulsing ostinatos. And the salsa-infused “Danza” offers a series of brilliant, scampering back-and-forths between the whole ensemble: This is pure counterpoint at its finest.

Saturday’s reading wanted nothing for confidence or panache in these movements: They snapped, danced and wheeled electrifyingly. Just as captivating, though, was the group’s execution of the Concierto’s pair of reflective “Interludios,” moments of respite in the storm. Here, they sang gently, especially the second, with its delicate blend of woodwind and string textures.

The Celebrity Series presents Leonidas Kavakos, Yo-Yo Ma, and Emanuel Ax playing Beethoven at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Symphony Hall.

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