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.
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.
“Just by who we are, we look a little bit different than most classical music ensembles, so that automatically makes people think we’re going to be a little different from what you’re expecting in a classical music concert,” Spellman-Diaz explains. “But we also spend a lot of time programming gratifying listening for everyone. So we try to have at least one classical work on the program, and then we might combine that with some world music and some jazz based repertoire.”
Imani has worked with jazz musicians like Jason Moran, Wayne Shorter and Edward Simon (whose new album with the group drops this month), world music performers like Simon Shaheen and Paquito d’ Rivera, and many other non “classical” composers. “We’re always thinking about how to put together a well thought out program, and that might include lighting, movement and other different things,” she says.
Two of this week’s concerts happen not in a traditional concert hall but instead in Oregon Museum of Science and Industry’s Kendall Planetarium, and two more performances in which Imani Winds joins BodyVox dance company at Revolution Hall, better known for jazz and pop than classical performances. “They’re pure excellence, they’re hysterical, adventurous, open minded,” Scott gushes about BodyVox. “The whole idea of what they’re doing with a wind quintet is outrageous.”
The two groups first worked together in 2013. “That was a special concert where we were trying to push out of our comfort zone,” Spellman-Diaz remembers. “We had BodyVox to help us go there. They’re such good outside-the-box thinkers.” Scott prefers to keep details about this year’s The Wind and the Wild program a surprise. “New ideas keep coming up. There’ll be very familiar waltzes and the music will invoke a certain feeling — but how they choreograph it is the opposite of what you’d expect. Prepare your mind to be twisted.”
The OMSI concerts and another at Hillsboro’s Walters Cultural Arts Center display the variety Spellman-Diaz mentioned. There’s an arrangement of a popular classic (this time Gustav Holst’s ever-popular The Planets, following earlier wind quintet versions of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade, and a pair of contemporary works. Miguel del Aguila’s whirling four-movement Wind Quintet No. 2 employs percussive and other unusual techniques (even some movement and singing), yet remains as tuneful as the popular Uruguayan-born, Seattle-based composer’s other music. Reena Esmail’s The Light Is the Same, based on the Sufi poetry of Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi, uses Indian scales and rhythmic devices. It emerged from the group’s Legacy Commissioning Project, which has spawned 20 new works so far.
“That’s what Imani Winds is most proud of,” Spellman says, “expanding the repertoire by adding new sounds. We’re constantly listening to new composers, trying to think of ideas to link your program together and make a theme that inspires the audience and the performers to feel like you’re in a special space.”
Scott sees Imani’s expansion of the chamber music repertoire as part of a broader trend of refreshing the field he’s noticed over the two decades since the New York-based group was born. “There’s so many young chamber music ensembles in a wide variety of configurations now,” he says, “Time for Three and Project Trio, The Westerlies, young groups making their marks, finding their way into this very dense field. Chamber music has forged its way to become the most progressive form of classical music. We’re seeing a beautiful, wider variety of styles and approaches in the last 15 years than in the 50 years before it.”
Along with expanding the chamber music repertoire, Imani is working hard to expand its audience through extensive outreach and education programs, both in their own annual chamber music festival and in other residencies and tour appearances. In Portland, they’re appearing with BRAVO Youth Orchestras and Portland Youth Philharmonic, at two schools, and at p:ear, a nonprofit serving homeless youth, as part of an initiative to share chamber music with young musicians.
At many of these outreach events, classical music is foreign to the kids. “They’re hoping it sounds a little like Jay Z, because that’s what they know,” Scott explains. “We try to break the wall by doing a lot of interactive activities — bring them on stage, dialogue back and forth. We stand amongst them and play some flashy entertaining music, and you can see the wonderment on their faces, then joy. The music is genius, but they didn’t expect to see people who look like them play this kind of music. And it’s live, not on the radio.
“We definitely do not dumb it down,” Scott continues. “We play the real repertoire, and tell them why it’s important to us. Since it doesn’t have a drummer or singer, we show them where the beat is. We might define what dance or country the rhythm comes from. We separate the melody out, help them to hear the tune as it goes through ensemble. You just try to make the connection and show them they’re not as far removed from this music as they might think.”
For Scott, participating in education programs is a way of “paying it forward,” since he benefited from music lessons donated by a generous teacher, Carolyn Clark, in middle school and then privately through high school. She recognized both his musical talent and the fact that his family could never have afforded to pay for those lessons.
“There’s a whole generation of young people addicted to the wrong side of YouTube,” Scott says. “They have access to so much greatness and yet we’re losing out to all the great pop and hip hop artists. So we’re reaching out, showing youthful people that musicians of diverse backgrounds play this music and enjoy it.”
Creating a Conduit
Ultimately, the Imanis see such efforts as part of a larger push to bring classical music to new audiences, and vice versa. And that requires a continuing commitment.
“You can’t just bring music to people,” Scott insists. “It’s not just about going to the neighborhood church or school and doing a concert and saying that’s the end of the relationship. There has to be a conduit for them to want to come in. You have to bring new people into the hall so they get the full experience of what it’s like to hear music they’ve never heard before, where they can see people who look like them playing it. It’s like watching something on Netflix instead of being in the cinema — there’s nothing like seeing it on the big screen.”
What is played also matters, not just who plays it and who hears it. “It’s having the diversity of programming and getting people into the seats,” Scott explains. “With only Bach and Beethoven, you’re only going to get a certain demographic over the long haul. You have to do things that are interesting enough for a wider variety of folks. Not just music by brown people but other genres, jazz, folk music. And Chamber Music Northwest does a good job of this.”
At last summer’s CMNW composers panel, Coleman noted that their efforts appear to be paying off, both in the expanding demographic of the group’s own audiences, and in the infrastructure that undergirds classical music. “I’m starting to see grants emerge and start to favor this idea of diversity, not just of gender but also of race,” she said. “Case studies are showing that venues benefited grants-wise from the diversity they included in programs. Organizations like American Composers Orchestra and Chamber Music Northwest have embraced other artists of color. That’s why we as a group have felt really at home there.”
Imani itself has been diversifying lately, adding clarinetist Dover, who’s younger, paler and, well, male-r than Scott’s fellow founders. “I love it!” Scott cracks. “Now there’s somebody else to put the luggage in the van! No, Mark is a ferocious player, one of the best we’ve ever worked with, and a sweet guy, humble. He’s much younger than us and he brings that youthful fire that’s sort of reignited something in us.”
After this spring visit, the group will be back for this summer’s festival, where Scott and Coleman’s own original music will be featured along with the wide range of sounds that makes Imani Winds’ concerts as diverse as its membership and its audiences.
7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, April 18-19: “Under the Stars,” Kendall Planetarium, Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, 1945 S.E. Water Ave. $48. 6:30 p.m. Monday, April 23: Walters Cultural Arts Center, 527 E. Main St., Hillsboro. $20. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday, April 24-25: “The Wind and the Wild,” with BodyVox, Revolution Hall, 1300 S.E. Stark St. $32-$64.
Tickets and info online or at 503-294-6400. A shorter version of this story appears in The Oregonian/OregonLive.