The piercing high note on Valerie Coleman’s flute drowned out the blazing ambulance siren in the background and drew delighted applause from the audience.
Coleman and her quintet ensemble, Imani Winds, were playing in an outdoor concert series in Bryant Park, hosted by famed Radio Show Host Bill McLaughlin.
McLaughlin, best known for his Peabody Award winning shows St. Paul Sunday and Exploring Music on 98.7 WFMT said, “Valerie was not going to be outshouted by a damned siren.”
He met the group back in 2002 and invited them on the air at NPR.
Now, accompanied by McLaughlin’s signature forays into the how’s and why’s of music, the Winds’ performance managed to keep the city at bay and a hundred or so busy New Yorkers in their seats on a warmish Monday afternoon.
Imani means “faith” in Arabic and Coleman said that’s exactly what moved her to call several of her fellow students and start a musical group while in college in 1997.
Thirteen years and one Grammy nomination later, the ensemble, which includes Toyin Spellman-Diaz on the oboe, Miriam Adam on the clarinet, Monica Ellis on the bassoon and Jeff Scott on the french horn, is still delivering jazz and classical music with a twist.
Their album is due out on the 21st of August 2010.
Coleman, who is African-American, said, “One of the reasons I brought us all together is because we all grew up listening to Michael Jackson and Earth, Wind and Fire. And I thought we could give a unique interpretation of classical music as a whole.”
The same dedication that helped Coleman keep the ensemble together all these years is also what incites a passionate response when she is faced with a noisy city.
As the ambulance passed by in the middle of an arrangement by Swiss Composer Daniel Schnyder, a petite and smiling Coleman said, “I got mad.”
She simply held the high note until the ambulance passed. She added, “It’s like when you are a teacher in a class – a classroom full of unruly of kids. You say, ‘I’ll wait’.”
However she admits to some pre-concert trepidation,”I was worried about the music being blown off the stands,” she said. Instead the wind acted as a sixth instrument, gently tugging at white linen skirts and the shirt of the only gentleman in group.
Jeff Scott makes you think of Louis Armstrong because of his horn and engaging smile. An accomplished musician, Scott played in the Broadway show The Lion King from 1997– 2005.
Raised in Far Rockaway Queens, Scott said that his borough is proudly represented in his musical arrangement of Composer Astor Piazzolla’s famous tune. “You heard it in the Libertango,” he says, “Our music is often talked about as urban classical. [It’s the] sense of musicality that comes from [our] roots no matter if we are playing Beethoven or Libertango.”
During the concert Bill McLaughlin asked doe-eyed Toyin Spellman-Diaz to show off a hidden talent. “Bill wanted to hear some English Horn besides the Oboe,” Spellman-Diaz explained.
So she sounded her horn and sprayed a few trance-inducing notes in the air, renditions of music by the Italian composer Rossini and his Czech counterpart Dvorák.
Her performance inspired McLaughlin to humorously champion immigration if only for the sake of freedom, fries and music.
McLaughlin said. “People really know Dvorák’s tune which sometimes comes across as a Negro Spiritual.”
Amazingly, McLaughlin makes the New York connection by relating how, in the late 1800’s, wealthy socialite Jeannette Thurber started the National Conservatory in New York and invited Dvorák to be its director.
That’s where Dvorák, famous for his compositions based on Czech folklore, was exposed to traditional American music.
“Dvorák had an [African-American] pupil named Harry Burleigh. In fact, he had two gifted students of color. And he learned so much from these guys,” said McLaughlin.
Harry Burleigh, who went on to become a renowned composer, introduced Dvorák to American spirituals.
After his tenure, Dvorák wrote his most famous piece, Symphony No.9. It was called ‘From the New World’ inspired by his experience in the United States.
In between dry chuckles McLaughlin noted, “We all come from somewhere else. And always when new people come in, the food and the music get more interesting.”
The Imani Winds concurred by delivering a buoyant jazz infused “Libertango” which sent the audience floating to its feet.
(Photo: Vanessa Briceno)