Imani Winds was a novelty when it first arrived on the scene in 1997, a wind quintet that veered away from the customary European classical fare to focus on compositions drawing from African and Latin American styles and idioms. Composers like Astor Piazzolla, Paquito D’Rivera and Wayne Shorter were the group's mainstays. So were arrangements of spirituals or songs by jazz singer Josephine Baker.
Critics and audiences praised the quintet's freshness and accessibility. But its members started to feel pigeonholed.
"At the beginning of our career, we used to do a lot of children's concerts,” Toyin Spellman-Diaz, the quintet’s oboist, told WQXR's Jeff Spurgeon. “That was kind of our vehicle into the large concert stage. People would hire us to do a bunch of residency activities in their town and we would do a main stage concert.”
By playing for kids the quintet learned how to ratchet up their on-stage energy, a skill that also served increasingly distracted adults. “But making that into a more sophisticated thing, and learning how to be sophisticated artists, that’s our next evolution,” said Spellman-Diaz. “Our manager has this phrase: 'we’re trying to go from being successful to being significant.'"
By any measure, the Imani Winds has been a success. The group has taken an outlier format in chamber music – lacking the deep repertoire of a string quartet – and has commissioned dozens of works. It has released eight recordings, the latest being an arrangement of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring for EMI. Along with touring, the group is a staple on Public Radio stations across the U.S.
In an effort to build a sharper identity in New York, the quintet has launched the Imani Winds Chamber Music Festival, which begins its fourth installment this Thursday. The four-day event features performances at Juilliard, Christ & St. Stephen’s Church and Bryant Park, plus a daylong symposium at Mannes College of Music, and an emerging composers workshop. The Imani will perform with violinist Lara St. John and host guest ensembles like the Zodiac Trio and Project Trio.
“The festival came about as a macrocosm of what we do on the road, which is to perform an evening concert and go and give a master class at the local conservatory or school of music,” said Mariam Adam, the group’s clarinetist. “That recipe became necessary for us to expand on.”
Adam notes that the quintet's recent tours abroad have been a wakeup call. The exposure to other styles "has been wonderful to regain a concept of what the wind quintet is and what it can be,” she said.
As the Imani Winds members seek to deepen their profile, the members face the immediate reality of family life. Flutist Valerie Coleman is currently away on maternity leave (Sato Moughalian is filling in) and bassoonist Monica Ellis is expecting a baby shortly. The group plans to use substitutes, said Spellman-Diaz, noting that both children are due two days apart from each other.
"It’s a testament to women living together in harmony in that we are very much joined together in a way that we don’t understand at this point," she joked.
Video: Amy Pearl; Audio: George Wellington; Text & Production: Brian Wise