There are no gimmicks in James Primosch’s Four Sketches, a friendly work for woodwind quintet given its world premiere Friday night by Imani Winds.
That’s saying something. It’s become routine these days for composers to stretch the boundaries of traditional instrumental character, taking advantage of clever sonic effects and the extremely high level of technical proficiency among players out there today.
Primosch, a longtime University of Pennsylvania professor, certainly had limitless instrumental technique at his disposal with this commission for Imani from the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. The winsome quintet can play anything, and the group’s repertoire in general over two-plus decades has grown the vocabulary of woodwind quintet sounds and expressive capabilities.
But Primosch’s new work comes out of a mid-20th-century sound world, and that’s a mode of expression that falls happily upon the ears right now. The Imani was right at home with it for Friday’s premiere at the American Philosophical Society.
“In the visual arts, sketches quickly suggest a figure or scene with a few evocative lines, sometimes helping the artist remember an image,” writes Primosch in a brief program note in the score to the piece. “Setting in motion the play of gesture and memory, I’ve tried to capture in these brief sketches four of the infinite number of things that music can do.”
Whether or not the composer was expressing specific memories in the piece isn’t clear. But we can guess, or fill in the blanks with our own memories, on hearing the pastoral ease and feeling of well-being in the first movement, titled “Calling.” Primosch wears lightly an American vernacular in his style for these sketches, one that recalls no other composer in particular, but an aesthetic of lyricism and gentle motion.
The other things “music can do”? The second movement, “Dancing,” is busily emphatic. The fourth, “Grooving,” is highly rhythmic and keeps you guessing.
I do love the third, “Remembering,” which bunches up into a knot of tension at one point, but is mostly a meditation of quiet melancholy. Primosch catches something about our times, despite this lovely work’s traditional techniques and language (or maybe because of them).
Imani channeled its breathtaking scope elsewhere — in the running-river momentum of Ligeti’s Sechs Bagatellen and in the varied storytelling twists and turns of John Harbison’s Quintet for Winds.
The group — not Philadelphia-based, but a frequent visitor here — arrived in a state of transition. Founding flutist Valerie Coleman was represented with a performance of her Tzigane, but is no longer playing with the quintet. Her successor, Brandon Patrick George, is a knockout musician with a gorgeous sound.
He should fit in beautifully. One of the qualities of this ensemble is its incredible virtuosity — heard in the extended solo George had in Coleman’s Tzigane, and the laser focus that clarinetist Mark Dover displayed in the piece with a piercing-precise high note of triumph.
Hornist Jeff Scott is a composer, too, and his Startin’ Sumthin’ as well as Lalo Schifrin’s La Nouvelle Orléans, featured what I at least have come to think of as the signature contribution of this group: a technical ease with extravagant gestures, intense production of sound, and the daring expressive liberties that come only after musicians have developed a sixth sense of ensemble-bonding. Imani’s got it all.
Imani Winds returns to Philadelphia with percussionist Alex Shaw on May 3, 7 p.m., for the LiveConnections series at World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut St., in a program exploring American, European, African and Latin America traditions. Tickets are $20-$25. www.liveconnections.org, 215-222-1400.