toyin spellman-diaz

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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