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Newman Concerto for Winds; Brahms Symphony No. 1

The Imani Winds shine in a blockbuster production

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Wednesday evening's festive concert, with Maestro Emmanuel Villaume leading his "Orchestra of Virtuosos" plus the Grammy-nominated fab five members of the Imani Winds, blew away a near-capacity crowd at the Gaillard Auditorium in the first of the festival's two orchestral blockbuster events.

As concertos go, David Newman's Concerto for Winds (premiered just last year) turned out to be a massive, sprawling thing — with more different moods and orchestral colors than you can shake a baton at. It calls for a huge orchestra ... and not just one soloist, but five. It's organized in three sections, subdivided into a total of eight separate movements. Among those, five are "mini-concertos" unto themselves; each devoted to one of the five solo instruments: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and French horn. Give this stuff to the amazing, all-African-American players of the Imani Winds and hear the musical sparks fly.

It didn't take but a few measures into the brief opening "Prelude'" — with all five soloists involved — to get the music's main impression. In a word, "cinematic." And small wonder, Newman is a front-line film composer with movie scores like Hoffa, War of the Roses, and Ice Age under his belt.

Mind you, there's nothing wrong with that: Newman's extensive film experience has left him with quite an arsenal of effective musical tricks. I haven't yet decided just how "classical" his music is, but I'm here to tell you that I enjoyed just about every minute of it. Given the film connection, forgive me if I lapse into movie metaphors as I digest this supremely colorful and varied material for you.

Flutist Valerie Coleman got to strut her sweet stuff first. My impressions ranged from idyllic fantasy to epic splendor. There were plenty of sparkly effects (here and elsewhere), thanks to a big battery of percussion. Parts of it could've graced a bucolic nature-film scene; I imagined the mythical Pan cavorting to his pipes in a mountain meadow. There was a lovely duet (the first of several) with the Concertmaster's dulcet violin and snippets of "commentary" from the other soloists hinting at their own movements to come.

The mood changed fast, with Jeff Scott's powerful French horn playing. His section called for speed and near-violence, with pile-driving backup from the orchestra. A brief slow spell and some jazzy touches brought some relief, but the musical maelstrom returned to end the movement with an emphatic bang. Some of this would've made for a great chase scene.

Section II eased in with what sounded like a pensive birdcall from Toyin Spellman-Diaz's expressive oboe. There were some exotic, Middle Eastern, and medieval twangs to her sound here and there. She got some subdued kibitzing from her partners, as well as from assorted orchestra members, but the plaintive melancholy of her music discouraged any real argument.

The manic "Interlude" — with tricky passages for all — turned out to be a sort of contest between the ever-louder orchestra and the determined soloists, who won out after a short, but intense skirmish. Enter bassoon-meister Monica Ellis for movement six in which she first struck me as a swan in trouble (which didn't extend to her playing). Despite some heavy moments, her slow and ethereal lament towards the end might well enhance a good sci-fi epic.

"Movement VII," the jazziest of the lot, belonged to Marian Adam and her swinging clarinet. Here we got lively metro-music, with a touch of menace, courtesy of the driven orchestra. It jumped and jived, with moments of edgy tension dispelled by brief sighs of relief , plus one stratospheric stretch from the strings that would've graced some movie's night-scene.

Everybody leapt into the fray to have a real ball in the exuberant final "Coda." We heard the soloists reprise their previous themes, but now amid a jazzy cacophony of sudden starts and stops, plus another brief battle between orchestra and soloists. It seemed that everybody, wrapped up into one happy family, wins in the end. And they won over the crowd, too, if our warm response meant anything.

After halftime, the orchestra returned in straight classic mode for Johannes Brahms' bracing Symphony No. 1. Given the fact that it took him 20 years to write it, it's a good thing it turned out to be one of the best-loved of the great symphonies. His illustrious predecessor, Beethoven, cast a long shadow, and Brahms (who never stopped nursing a crippling inferiority complex) despaired of ever measuring up to that exalted standard. Nobody was surprised (except Brahms) when his first big symphonic effort did the trick.

Emmanuel Villaume and his brilliant young musicians rose to the occasion, with some very fancy playing, lush sound and palpable emotion. These kids are the absolute cream of the nations's current crop of top conservatory grads, so we had reason to expect brilliant and sonorous playing from them. Trouble is, they lack orchestral experience and it shows occasionally. There were a few moments of slightly ragged instrumental fabric here and there, especially as their playing rose to a wild fever pitch in the final movement.

But I didn't mind much, as they made up for it with countless moments of lustrous lyric beauty, staggering power, and edge-of-your-seat excitement — the kind you seldom get from even the most polished big-city bands. Villaume knows how to harness their crackling energy and youthful passion and make something memorable of it.

As the last movement's golden theme (I still can't get it out of my head) throbbed from the silken lower strings, everybody at the Gaillard knew that they were bearing witness to some very special music-making.

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