The first presentation of 2014 was truly a special event for Duke Performances. Rather than being quasi-competitors with the Chamber Arts Society, they have joined forces in presenting world class artists in the latter’s series. The concert was the Duke debut of Imani Winds, a quintet that has indeed become probably the best known ensemble of its kind, now or ever. The musicians’ ability authentically to perform all styles of music, their virtuoso talents on each instrument, plus their captivating stage presence have made them international stars since 1997. Because of this they have been able to do something that no other chamber music ensemble has: they have become as big, or bigger, than many string quartets that monopolize most chamber music series, including a few of ours. Toppling string quartets and piano trios from their perch as the alleged only type of ensemble worthy of inclusion in these series was no easy task, but the Imani Winds had most in the audience asking “what took so long?”

“Imani” is Swahili for faith, but experiencing an Imani Winds performance has plenty of objective proof that any pre-conceived notions of what a woodwind quintet can do must be quickly dispelled. The instrumentation is exactly that of the traditional quintet, but that is where the similarity ends, in both the unique talents of each player and the repertoire. The group consists of co-founders Valerie Coleman, flute, and Monica Ellis, bassoon, plus Toyin Spellman-Diaz, oboe, Mariam Adam, clarinet, and the lone man, Jeff Scott on French horn. Baldwin Auditorium was sold out and when the group came out – the women all in attractive, bright different-colored gowns – and began to play, they had us sold in seconds, too.

The opener was “Startin’ Sumthin'” by Jeff Scott (b.1967). He and flutist Valerie Coleman are not only virtuoso players but also highly accomplished composers and arrangers. They bring an added depth and dimension to a group already bursting with talent and personality. Scott’s opener is a microcosm of this: a rhythmically treacherous update of ragtime that not only had the group playing in perfect synchronicity, but also made it seem natural and effortless.

Artistic collaboration and conspiracy is a hallmark of innovative musicians and Imani Winds has made that a feature of their programming and performances. Next was a major commissioned work by Jason Moran (b.1975), the jazz pianist/composer and a musical adviser at the Kennedy Center. As the composer writes: “My commission, Cane, for Imani Winds is a 4 movement piece that is inspired by the landscape and sounds of Cane River, Louisiana.” This is a highly programmatic work that attempts to trace the composer’s ancestral lineage. This is quite an undertaking and I’m not sure it quite works – upon first hearing.

Valerie Coleman (b.1970), flutist and the other resident composer, was featured next in Suite: Portraits of Josephine Baker. Based on the life of the acclaimed American singer who became a sensation in Paris in the 1920s, this work actually has eight movements, but tonight we heard just four. This is a fascinating work that shows Coleman as a composer in command of her craft. The first section, “St. Louis 1920,” has the quintet sounding like an early big band, and each section following provides an air of being in Paris at the height of its artistic energy.

In the second half Imani moved from contemporary composers to several big names. If it is delicacy and nuanced playing that you wanted, you got it with Jakub Kowalewski’s arrangement of Debussy’s “Bruyères,” one of his piano preludes. Depicting a small town in Eastern France, this was a perfect vehicle for the players to demonstrate beautiful tone, phrasing, and lovely playing at very soft levels.

An email went out from Duke Performances about a month ago announcing a change in the previously scheduled program, and what a wonderful surprise that was. The time had come to hear Jonathan Russell’s arrangement for the Imani Winds of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. If one work can prompt someone to attend a concert they might otherwise not come to, this would be it – especially in this unique form. There is an arrangement by Stravinsky himself for piano four hands (reputedly he and Debussy played through this), but this is the first arrangement of its kind that I have heard of. It is not the complete work, but very close. Of course, as in the orchestral work, the bassoon opens the piece with the most famous solo for the instrument. This is a masterful arrangement and an astounding performance. For those of us familiar with this work, we’d wait for sections that we simply could not imagine being played by just five wind players and sounding satisfying. In each instance, the clarity was revelatory and the rhythmic and harmonic completeness was a musical miracle. A mid-concert standing ovation ensued.

That was a tough act to follow, but they picked a good one with another of Jeff Scott’s arrangements, this time Astor Piazzolla’s “Libertango.” Unlike the Stravinsky, most of Piazzolla’s works have been arranged for nearly every instrumental combination imaginable. This piece is typical of the nuevo tango, as it is a tango meant for listening, not dancing. Despite that, it is still quite sensuous music, and the Imani Winds swayed and swung to the infectious rhythms and lush harmonies.

It was quite revealing to hear quite a few people remark, in a rather surprised fashion, how much they loved the concert. Like a committed carnivore enjoying a meatless meal, this concert shows how a stringless chamber music concert can thrill, excite, and – best of all for presenters – sell out  a concert.