Friday, February 22, 2013

CCC 060 Valerie Coleman

American composer and flutist Valerie Coleman is the feature of this installment of the Consonant Classical Challenge . Coleman is the founder of the Imani Winds, and much of her writing is for her ensemble. Coleman blends jazz and African-American musical traditions with classical structures to create works that are distinctive and engaging. Her music can easily be enjoyed by non-classical audiences -- but the craftmanship of her compositions provide plenty of substance for serious classical listeners to dig into as well.

Red Clay Mississippi Delta has a title that evokes the Deep South. The music delivers on the expectation set up by the title with some bluesy and jazz-like figures. Coleman's first-hand knowledge of wind instruments and the strengths of the Irmani players makes this an effective work for wind quintet. This isn't a jazz piece transcribed for winds -- it's an organic work for winds that has some jazz inflections.

At first listen Umoja might seem like a pleasant little encore piece. But listen again. The work has a clear call-and-response structure, an integral part of African (and African-American) traditional music. It's strong rhythms also owe much to African drumming traditions. Along with all that, there's also some challenging writing for the instruments. It's not easy to bend notes on a bassoon like that!

Coleman's classical training comes to the fore with the Sonatine for clarinet and piano. The work has a more formal structure to it than the previous examples, but there are still some traces of jazz in the clarinet's melody.

Gypsy Run shows Coleman's skill at orchestrating for larger forces. This work is composed for symphonic winds. The multitude of tonal colors she gets from what other composers might consider a limited palette (no strings), is dazzling.

Coleman's music might be easy to get into, but it's not necessarily easy to place. Rubispheres starts slow, but once it gets going it never lets up. Coleman's composition requires a tight ensemble to bring the piece off.

Valerie Coleman is both a talented performer and composer. She knows how to effectively communicate with an audience, and not just the highly specialized contemporary music audience, either. Most of her published compositions are for chamber groups, many for winds as you might expect.

Her lone published orchestral work is "The Painted Lady," for soprano and orchestra. I'd like to hear that work in concert sometime. Her bio says "y the age of fourteen, she had already written three full-length symphonies." Valerie Coleman's mature works are vivacious and tuneful. They may be youthful works, but I'd really like to hear those symphonies, too!

Recommended Recordings

Imani Winds: Classical Underground

Close to Home: Music of American Composers

Imani Winds: Terra Incognita

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