imani winds

Imani Winds: unapologetically bold

Adventurous ensemble’s residency at Chamber Music Northwest culminates in accessible, original music that embraces change and American culture

By MATTHEW ANDREWS

What’s special about Imani Winds, besides their overall badassery as a woodwind quintet, is that the group boasts two composers—horn player Jeff Scott and flutist Valerie Coleman. Although Coleman is taking a break from performing with the group, her presence (physical and spiritual) added considerably to the joy the group brought to their recently concluded residency with Chamber Music Northwest.

Over the last year and a half, the quintet performed a whole slew of bold, intimate concerts around Portland, in the usual venues (Lincoln Hall, Kaul Auditorium) as well as less conventional spots like Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium, Revolution Hall, and the OMSI Planetarium. They’ve even routinely hosted an instrument petting zoo, where children can come play with the group’s flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon.

Imani Winds: Chamber Music Northwest’s 2017-18 artists in residence

The group also got better from the beginning of their residency to the end, as their usual repertoire (arrangements of Rite of Spring and The Planets, commissioned works by Simon Shaheen and Reena Esmail) gradually gave way to a lovely collaboration with local dance troupe BodyVox in April: a delirious evening of film and dance set to arrangements of Chopin and Brahms (and Scott’s Homage to Duke), Imani performing right there on stage with all the dancers. Finally we came to this summer’s festival and the large-scale compositions they were all talking about last year: Scott’s Passion for Bach and Coltrane and Coleman’s Muhammad Ali portrait Shot Gun Houses.

After all that, I was sorry to see them go.

Great Scott

Imani has always had several Jeff Scott compositions in its repertoire, but his Passion for Bach and Coltrane—premiered a few years back and performed at Kaul Auditorium on July 5th—marked the apotheosis of his time as a composer during the group’s CMNW residency. His other compositions have been good, sure (last year’s performance of his “Titilayo” in Whitsell Auditorium being a high point), but this was something else altogether, a real highlight of the entire fest.

Sadly, it’s relatively rare for important music to also be good music, and it’s especially rare for referential music to have any real originality, but Scott handled his interpolations of Bach and Coltrane with grace, confidence, and a unique compositional voice which seems to have matured just in the couple years since I started listening to him. I felt his original music was the Passion’s best feature, the more overt references functioning mainly as contextualizing brackets and launching points for the pure joy of playing with other people’s music—a joy that classical musicians can sometimes lose sight of, since they’re almost always playing other people’s music.

Composer Jeff Scott and poet A.B. Spellman chat during pre-concert CMNW Musical Conversation. Photo: Judy Blankenship

“I wanted to combine the two arts I love the most: classical music and jazz,” Scott said in a pre-concert talk with poet A.B. Spellman. Bach and Coltrane made an ideal meeting point, as both were engaged with the search “for oneness with spirituality.” Though Spellman had doubts about classical and jazz meldings, saying they are “very seldom accomplished, though many have tried,” he praised Scott’s music, saying the composer “does both forms with integrity, with a bona fide jazz trio and two classical groups.”

The two classical groups were Imani Winds and the Harlem Quartet, and the bona fide jazz trio consisted of pianist Alex Brown, bassist Zach Brown, and drummer Neal Smith (all but Imani playing their CMNW premieres). The poet himself was on stage too, nestled in with the band, reading his poetry, weaving it in and out of the music. “Through beauty, past knowledge, here I am, Dear John, back at the beginning, better.”

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MusicWatch Weekly: passions and improvisations

A pair of new American Passions, an explosion of improvisation and other Oregon musical highlights 

J.S. Bach’s two surviving Passions (St. Matthew and St. John) remain pinnacles of Western music, more than a quarter millennium after he constructed them. Neither is on the program at this year’s Oregon Bach Festival, but this summer, Oregon does offer a pair of new Passions inspired by Bach’s mighty masterworks.

Harlem Quartet performs with Imani Winds at Chamber Music Northwest.

On Thursday at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, Chamber Music Northwest brings the premiere of Jeff Scott’s ambitious “Passion for Bach and Coltrane” an hour-long work for wind quintet, string quartet, piano, double bass, percussion, and orator. The Imani Winds hornist and composer, who’s performed plenty of both classical and jazz music, finds musical common ground between two musical deities separated by centuries, culture, race and style — but united by virtuosity and spirituality. JS Bach’s masterpiece Goldberg Variations and John Coltrane’s landmark A Love Supreme provide points of departure, and leading African American poet and jazz writer A.B. Spellman’s poems provide the text — with Spellman (who happens to be the father of Imani oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz) on hand to narrate in this performance with two of my very favorite ensembles in the world: CMNW’s artists in residence, Imani Winds, and the fabulous, Grammy-winning Harlem Quartet. The attention given last week’s release of a lost Coltrane session recorded a couple years before Love Supreme, and another new release documenting his final tour with Miles Davis’s ensemble a few years before that, shows that Trane’s music still matters, just as Bach’s does, and both still inspire listeners and other artists alike.

The two ensembles’ Saturday and Sunday CMNW performances at, respectively, Reed and PSU include more most welcome new music by Scott and Imani’s other excellent composer, flutist Valerie Coleman — a world premiere tribute to Muhammad Ali, who grew up just blocks from Coleman’s childhood home in West Louisville. The shows also sport a 1987 composition about New Orleans by the great film composer Lalo Schifrin, arrangements of the most famous music by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Dizzy Gillespie and Billy Strayhorn, and more.

CMNW’s Monday and Tuesday shows also include new music by an erstwhile Northwest composer. Pulitzer Prize winner John Luther Adams splits his time between Mexico’s Sonoran desert and New York City now — both about as far removed as possible, in different directions, from his longtime Alaskan abode — but he still channels his environment into music. His gentle, even delicate 2016 septet “There is no one, not even the wind comes directly from my experience of the space and solitude, the stillness and light of the desert,” Adams says. CMNW’s excellent lineup will also play a JS Bach trio sonata and a Dvorak string quartet.

Oregon’s other big new Passion is Sunday’s world premiere of The Passion of Yeshua, by American composer Richard Danielpour, whose music has been performed by Yo-Yo Ma, Dawn Upshaw, Emerson String Quartet, New York Philharmonic, and other notables. Commissioned by the Oregon Bach Festival, and led by acclaimed conductor JoAnn Falletta, the oratorio recounts the myth of Jesus’s last day on earth from the perspective of female voices traditionally silenced in the Biblical tale — Mary and Mary Magdalene.

It’s a real treat to see today’s American composers infuse this ancient musical form with today’s, well, passions, and especially exciting to see two of our state’s major music institutions providing the commitment and cash to make them possible. But I hope next time, they or another Oregon institution will commission one of Oregon’s own composers (rather than a couple of New Yorkers, however accomplished) to perpetrate a passion even more relevant to our own time and place.

Rich Halley Quartet performed at the 2017 Improvisation Summit of Portland.

You can hear just such homegrown music at the Creative Music Guild’s annual Improvisation Summit of Portland Friday and Saturday at Portland’s Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, 8371 N Interstate. This year’s edition features veteran CMG improvisers who also draw from the modern classical music tradition like Matt Carlson, Lie Very Still (fab flutist John Savage, drummer Ken Ollis, guitarist Mike Gamble), and Dana Reason’s An Apple for my Teacher (with Gamble, Andrews, Savage, Gillet and more). The summit also includes LA-based koto/dobro duo Caspar Sonnett and non musical improvisers — comedy, DJs, a midnight variety hour that mixes dancers, filmmakers, and sound artists) and much more. And yes, there’s first-rate jazz too: Rich Halley Trio, Ian Christensen Quartet; Belgium-born, New Orleans based cellist/composer/singer Helen Gillet, and a tribute to one of the state’s true jazz legends, the great bassist Andre St. James, who died suddenly this year.

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MusicWatch Weekly: festivalpalooza!

Festivals erupt this week in Oregon with Makrokosmos, Oregon Bach Festival, Astoria Music Festival, Salem World Beat Festival, Chamber Music Northwest, PianoPushPlay and more

Acclaimed piano duo Stephanie & Saar once again return to Northwest Portland’s Vestas building Thursday to collaborate with Portland Percussion Group and other Portland performers in a five-hour marathon show. This time, the Makrokosmos Project 4: Dadapalooza program features one of the mid-20th century’s groundbreaking works: John Cage’s justly celebrated Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano. Even listeners befuddled by Cage’s later detour into aleatoric (chance) music can appreciate the restrained, mysterious beauty the composer conjured from his modifications of the piano’s strings and hammers.

Stephanie & Saar performed with Portland Percussion Group last year at Makrokosmos.

The cheerfully overstuffed extravaganza also includes another 20th century classic: the third Makrokosmos composition by project patron saint and Pulitzer Prize winner George Crumb: Music for a Summer Evening, written in 1974 for two amplified pianos and percussion, plus new music by Gregory Hutter, Karen Tanaka, Portland’s Texu Kim (the Portland composer’s dazzling 300+ MicroVariations on a Bach Theme, one of my favorite local discoveries this year) Wang Jie and more. It’s the kind of event where you can wander in and out as you please, sample food and wine, the better to sample unfamiliar yet often enticing music of our time. Search our site for our extensive previous coverage to get an idea of what it’s like.

A piece that would have fit snugly into Dadapalooza would have been George Antheil’s 1924 Ballet Mecanique, whose sirens, airplane propellers, percussion-laced orchestra player piano, and crazy rhythms — scandalized Paris, sparked riots, delighted surrealists and avant gardists, and made the young American composer’s reputation as the Bad Boy of Music, which became the apt title of his autobiography. After returning to America, he wrote an advice column (!), collaborated with actress Hedy Lamarr on the technology that much later made wi-fi possible (for which he was short-shrifted in last year’s documentary Bombshell) and mostly wrote film music.

But recently, Portland violinist and Antheil scholar Hannah Leland learned about some previously unknown music from the mid-1940s that Antheil wrote for a German-American violinist friend. With her pianist partner Aimee Fincher, their Duo Odéon (named after the Paris street where Antheil, who died in 1959, lived above Sylvia Beach’s famous bookstore) recorded a splendid new Sono Luminus album of that music and more. Their album release party at Portland’s Santé Bar, 411 Northwest Park Avenue, features Antheil’s exuberant, virtuosic mid-century music from their ebullient new recording Specter — think sassy Prokofiev with an American twist. The bar is creating two craft cocktails, the Odéon and Specter, for the occasion.

PianoPushPlay’s annual free kickoff event at the Portland Art museum courtyard brings together ten donated pianos that have been wonderfully weirded out by local artists, and they’re played by various local pianists (classical, jazz, pop) and even random passersby who sign up. They keep them out in the courtyard for anyone to play as they walk by, and at summer’s end they’re auctioned off and donated to local  schools, community centers etc. Paste the name into the OAW search field to read our previous coverage.

Pianopushplay founder Megan McGeorge poses next to a piano she donated to the cause at last summer’s opening event.

Saxophonic Sequels, Festival Fever

“It cries, sighs and dreams,” wrote Berlioz. “It possesses a crescendo and can gradually diminish until it is only an echo of an echo. I know of no other instrument that possesses this particular capacity to reach the outer limits of audible sound.” The French romantic composer was talking about the then-newly invented saxophone. We had an outbreak of sax attacks a couple weeks back and now the saxes return Wednesday night with Chamber Music Northwest’s musical-theatrical show Adolphe Sax and the Creation of the Saxophone at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre. The latest in CMNW’s recent run of theater about music, this one features actor Harold Dixon, the dynamic young Kenari Saxophone Quartet, and a story with live music about Sax’s life and instrument.

Kenari Quartet performs at Chamber Music Northwest

Kenari plays recent pieces for sax quartet by Corey Dundee (inspired by the young composer’s struggle with depression) and John Leszczynski plus a viola solo by the great Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki and a duo by Daniel Temkin (inspired by a childhood memory box) on Friday’s New@Noon concert at PSU, which also has a viola solo and violin duo.

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MusicWatch Weekly: new sounds from Oregon

This week’s Oregon music schedule boasts numerous new works by today’s composers from the Northwest, Midwest and beyond, mixed in with classics from across the ages and oceans

Big Horn Brass, a baker’s dozen of brass players and two percussionists, feature brassy new music by Cascadia Composers Greg Steinke, Jan Mittelstaedt, John Billota, Greg Bartholomew, and fellow Northwest composer Anthony DiLorenzo at their Saturday night concert at Beaverton’s St. Matthew Lutheran Church. Some other guys named Debussy, Bach and Puccini will provide filler.

New Oregon music by Eugene composer Paul Safar is also on the program when Eugene’s excellent Delgani String Quartet goes all homicidal Friday at Portland’s and Saturday at Springfield’s Wildish Theater. The program features music inspired by murder, with theatrical readings from literary works that inspired them interpolated by actor Rickie Birran of Man of Words Theatre Company. Janacek and Shostakovich will be represented too. Read Gary Ferrington’s ArtsWatch preview.

Speaking of new music by Oregon composers, read Gary’s ArtsWatch preview of Oregon composer Ethan Gans-Morse’s new composition commissioned by Rogue Valley Symphony, which the orchestra performs this weekend in Medford and Grants Pass. Beethoven is the closing act.

Estelí Gomez sings new music by University of Oregon composers at  Eugene’s Beall Concert Hall. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

There’s even newer Oregon music for voice Sunday at the Oregon Composers Forum’s Sunday concert at the UO’s Beall Concert Hall. The superb soprano Esteli Gomez, one of the singers in Grammy winning Roomful of Teeth ensemble, returns to sing new music by UO composers.

Joe Kye performs at Portland State Friday.

That same night, Portland based, Korea-born songwriter-composer and looping violinist Joe Kye plays his engaging, often autobiographical songs at Portland State’s Lincoln Recital Hall.

Shades of Sufjan Stevens and his albums inspired by American states! Does a symphony called “Portland” and named after Oregon’s largest city qualify as Oregon music — if it wasn’t written by an Oregonian? Decide for yourself at the University of Portland’s free concert featuring Erich Stem’s orchestral work Tuesday night at Buckley Auditorium. His website bio says nothing about where Stem resides or was born, but Indiana seems a likely suspect. The piece is part of Stem’s project called America By: A Symphonic Tour, which includes a collection of commissioned works from across the country, “each work reflecting the unique qualities and history of a specific location.”

New American Sounds

One of the most frequently performed and commissioned composers of choral music, Minnesota’s Jake Runestad, seem poised to follow Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre as a choral music star, and he’s also written several operas and other works. On Saturday night at Lewis & Clark College’s Agnes Flanagan Chapel, Choral Arts Ensemble and Linn-Benton Community College Chamber Choir team up to present the Music of Jake Runestad, the first major opportunity for Portland to get a healthy sampling of his heartfelt songs and broad, audience-friendly musical range.

Bells toll in Chicago composer Augusta Read Thomas’s new, half-hour orchestral composition, Sonorous Earth (an evolution of her earlier Resounding Earth), which Eugene Symphony performs Thursday at the Hult Center to complete her artistic residency there. Each of its four-movements also uses techniques associated with the major composers who made percussion the defining sound of 20th century classical music: Stravinsky, Messiaen, Varese, Berio, Cage, Ligeti, Partch and Oregon’s own Lou Harrison.

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DanceWatch Weekly: Nine-dance week

The week in dance from Alvin Ailey's "Revelations" to OBT's Man/Woman and far, far beyond

There are nine dance performances this week beginning with the Original Bad Unkl Sistas (a performing duo made up of Anastazia Aranaga and Mizu Desierto, at the Headwaters Theatre) and ending with Degenerate Art Ensemble (from Seattle next Wednesday, also appearing at the Headwaters). Both are part of the Butoh College Performance Series: The Future is Female (and trans and queer and in celebration of all ages, all bodies, all genders, all colors), curated by Water in the Desert artistic director Mizu Desierto. In between, we have a full range of seven dance offerings from smaller, experimental works, to large scale, time-tested, historical dances that have been seen by audiences around the world. There is something for everyone. Check below for details and enjoy!

Performances this week

The Original Bad Unkl Sistas Anastazia Aranaga and Mizu Desierto. Photo courtesy of Mizu Desierto.

Original Bad Unkl Sistas
Anastazia Aranaga and Mizu Desierto
Presented by Water in the Desert
8 pm April 18
Butoh College student performance/offering
7 pm April 22
The Headwaters Theatre, 55 NE Farragut St. #4
This improvised duet by Portland dance-theatre artist, co-founder and artistic director of Water in the Desert, Mizu Desierto, alongside long-time collaborator, founder and artistic director of Bad Unkl Sista, Anastazia Aranaga, will follow a minimal structure, take imaginative pathways, and will be full of surprises. This performance is part of Butoh College 2018. Desierto and Aranaga will also offer a workshop titled Original//Freedom which “will be full of unknowns, delicate presence, deep stillness, rampant chaos, visceral intimacy & care.”

Emily Parker and Christopher Kaiser performing Nicolo Fonte’s “Left Unsaid,” one of five ballets presented in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s MAN/WOMAN, April 12 – 24, 2018 at the Newmark Theatre. Photo by James McGrew

Man/Woman
Oregon Ballet Theatre, Artistic Director Kevin Irving
Choreography by Mikhail Fokine, Darrell Grand Moultrie, Nicolo Fonte, James Canfield, and Jiří Kylián
April 19-21
Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway
Curated by Oregon Ballet Theatre’s artistic director Kevin Irving, this program of five ballets juxtaposes all-female ballets against all-male ballets exploring gender stereotypes.

Last week I interviewed Irving about whether or not classical ballet can catch up with contemporary values and be something that future generations will want to support. “We’re not the entire conversation,” he said. “We can only be a contribution to the conversation, incomplete, but hopefully insightful and maybe even revelatory in some ways.” You can read our entire conversation here and Heather Wisner review of Man/Woman here.

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Imani Winds preview: celebrating the differences

Chamber Music Northwest brings the renowned wind ensemble back to Portland this week as its artists in residence

Classical music has a diversity problem. So it marked a turning point when the Portland classical music presenter Chamber Music Northwest announced that its next annual artists-in-residence — following the 2015-16 tenure of the storied Emerson Quartet, composed entirely of older white men — would be Imani Winds, a younger, equally talented and until recently, entirely black ensemble.

Bassoonist Monica Ellis, hornist /composer Jeff Scott, flutist/composer Valerie Coleman, oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz and clarinetist Mark Dover delighted audiences at last summer’s annual summer festival. They’re also in town this week for a series of concerts, dance performances and educational and outreach programs, and will return to this summer’s Chamber Music Northwest festival.

Imani Winds returns to Chamber Music Northwest this week.

It’s not just the group’s race and age that represents greater diversity in chamber music. At last summer’s CMNW festival, Scott noted in a composers panel discussion that the group’s values arise in part from its music. Unlike the Emersons or any other string quartet,  “a wind ensemble is celebrating the differences among instruments, rather than the homophony of string or sax quartets,” he pointed out — a metaphor for Imani itself. “Chamber music, more than orchestral music, allows the individuality of the musicians to shine through to audiences, because there’s no conductor intermediary,” Scott continued. “The musicians are allowed to establish their own individuality and tradition. “

Imani’s 2017-18 residency grew out of the ensemble’s long relationship with CMNW. “We’ve been coming to Portland every two or three years for 15 years,” Scott recalls. “The audiences have been so nice to us!” says Spellman-Diaz. “It’s hard to think of nicer audiences than in Portland and Eugene.” The ensemble enjoyed their Oregon experiences so much that when artistic director David Shifrin asked if they’d be interested in becoming CMNW’s resident ensemble, Scott says, “it took about five seconds for us to say yes!”

The feeling is mutual. Since their founding in 1997, Imani has cultivated a substantial, diverse and enthusiastic audience in Oregon and beyond. Their skill as musicians plays the biggest role, of course — they’re among the finest of all chamber ensembles. But their genuinely enthusiastic, refreshingly un-canned stage charisma, and their audience-conscious programming, also encourage broader listenership than most classical music concerts’ traditionally narrow demographic. They’ve collected innumerable awards, toured the globe, given hundreds of concerts, and made eight recordings.

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ArtsWatch Year in Music 2017

ArtsWatch chronicles a year that showcased women's music, natural inspirations, and institutional evolution

Oregon music is surging, and this year, Oregon ArtsWatch has been your personal surfboard to keep you on top of the tide instead of inundated by it. And to bring you views of the powerful creative forces beneath the waves. This roundup is in no way a comprehensive or even representative sample of the dozens and dozens of music-related previews, reviews, features, interviews, profiles, and more we presented in 2017. Instead, we’ve chosen mostly stories whose value transcends a particular concert, leaned toward Oregon rather than national artists (who can get plenty of press elsewhere), favored music by today’s American composers instead of long-dead Europeans, and tried to represent a variety of voices and approaches. We hope this roundup gives a valuable snapshot of an eventful, fruitful moment in Oregon’s musical culture.

Homegrown Sounds

Although we also write about jazz and other improvised music and other hard-to-classify sounds, ArtsWatch’s primary musical focus has always been contemporary “classical” (a term we’d love to replace with something more accurate) composition by Oregon composers, and this year presented a richer tapestry than ever. As always, Cascadia Composers led the way in presenting new Oregon music in the classical tradition, but others including FearNoMusic, Third Angle New Music, the University of Oregon and even new entities like Burn After Listening also shared homegrown sounds. ArtsWatch readers learned about those shows and composers from accomplished veterans like Kenji Bunch to emerging voices such as Justin Ralls.

Wright, Brugh, Clifford, Safar, and ?? play with toys at Cascadia Composers’ Cuba concert.

Cascadia Composers and Crazy Jane fall concerts: Spanning the spectrum
Quartet of concerts reveals rich diversity in contemporary Oregon classical — or is that ‘classical’ ? — Music. JANUARY 20 MATTHEW ANDREWS.

Kenji Bunch: Seeing the Elephant
After returning to home ground, the Portland composer’s career blossoms with commissions from the Oregon Symphony and Eugene Ballet. MARCH 7 BRETT CAMPBELL.

45th Parallel preview: from conflict to collaboration
ArtsWatch review provokes contention, then cooperation as ensemble invites writer to co-curate a concert featuring music by young Oregon composers. MARCH 29  BRETT CAMPBELL. Also read Maria Choban’s review: 45th Parallel review: Horror show .

Burn After Listening: Stacy Phillips, Lisa Ann Marsh, Jennifer Wright.

‘Fire and Ice’ preview: accessible adventure
New Portland composers’ collective’s debut performance includes aerial dance, sculpture, poetry, icy instruments — and a close connection to audiences. APRIL 27 BRETT CAMPBELL

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