Change is in the air with Imani Winds set to make their UC debut

Sun Jan 15, 2017 at 4:26 pm

By Sean Piccoli

The Imani Winds will make their debut as University of Chicago ensemble in residence Friday night at Mandel Hall. Photo: Matthew Murphy
The Imani Winds will make their debut as University of Chicago ensemble in residence Friday night at Mandel Hall. Photo: Matthew Murphy

If gigs and glory in chamber music are what a classically trained player seeks, the first piece of advice from anyone already in the field is apt to be, “Learn strings, not winds.”

It’s the string-playing Emerson, Borodin and Juilliard ensembles of the world that tend to capture music lovers’ fancy. Populated by instruments farther back on the orchestra seating chart, wind ensembles are fewer in number, smaller on classical marquees, and often named for colleges or conservatories that keep them afloat.

Yet the New York City-based Imani Winds has managed, in almost 20 years together and largely on its own, to succeed in chamber music, even while remaining something of an outlier. Traversing classical, jazz, pop and world music, this Grammy-nominated quintet is also culturally unique — a group comprised mainly of African-Americans in a field with notably few.

“We are a niche of a niche,” says bassoonist Monica Ellis. 

But Imani Winds’ profile is likely to grow in light of the quintet’s new role: resident ensemble at the University of Chicago, a post held for the previous 17 years by the group that inaugurated it, the Pacifica Quartet. 

Members of Imani Winds are already working in UC classrooms, coaching students, as part of the planned two-year rotation. “The interaction we’ve had with them is amazing,” said Jeff Scott, Imani Winds’ french horn player and one of the group’s two composers, along with flutist Valerie Coleman. The quintet is rounded out by oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz and clarinetist Mark Dover.

This Friday night Imani Winds makes its University of Chicago Presents concert debut at Mandel Hall with a characteristically varied program: Elliott Carter, Paquito D’Rivera, Simon Shaheen and Ruth Crawford Seeger as well as pieces by Coleman and Scott. It’s an event that will be closely watched not just for the caliber of playing but as a critical moment of succession.

Last spring, the Pacifica Quartet said goodbye after 17 seasons as the Don Michael Randel Ensemble in Residence, a run that paralleled the group’s rise to international renown, including milestones such as the quartet’s 2009 Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance. Although Pacifica will return in April to play Mozart, Shostakovich and Beethoven in the same UC Presents series that is showcasing Imani Winds, 2016 marked the end to a long and productive formal partnership.

“We were very lucky with Pacifica,” said Thomas Christensen, chairman of the university’s music department.

A fixture for 11 years as ensemble in residence at the University of Illinois in Urbana–and now based in Bloomington, Indiana–Pacifica came to Chicago a “very, very young, very green quartet,” said Christensen. They blossomed in multiple roles: instructors and lecturers; first chairs for the more challenging pieces tackled by student ensembles; acclaimed performing and recording group with a loyal following in Chicago; and ambassadors for the university.

“We got a certain kind of cache” from the affiliation, Christensen said, noting that Pacifica Quartet sometimes performed at university fundraisers — a powerful draw when courting alumni and other potential donors.

But as the off-campus opportunities for Pacifica Quartet grew, their on-campus presence gradually declined, prompting the search for another resident ensemble, said Christensen.

Pacifica second violinist Sibbi Bernhardsson said at a concert in early 2016 that the group was “disappointed” to learn it would not have its contract renewed. Christensen described the separation as more mutual, though he did not dispute that the music department had its own priorities and ideas about how to proceed.

“We really wanted to get back to the basics of having someone more integrated into our program,” said Christensen.

Enter Imani Winds, a departure from the previous setup on a number of fronts: winds, not strings; an eclectic crossover repertoire; and a cultural and ethnic profile atypical of the classical chamber group norm.

“I do think they wanted to shake it up a little bit,” bassoonist Ellis said of the university’s decision to recruit Imani Winds, which takes its name from a Swahili word meaning “faith”

Ellis guessed that Chicago’s music faculty must have deemed it important to demonstrate that “they’re not just staying in the same lane,” and that they saw an opportunity here “to make a difference, not just musically, but also visually, frankly, because there aren’t a lot of African-American chamber music groups. We are who we are.”

But all of that, she noted, was supposition — since she never asked. “In our almost 20 years we’ve kind of gotten past the ‘Why would they want us?’ ” said Ellis.  “We just believe it’s our artistry and our craft and the things that we stand for.”

Christensen confirmed that in Imani Winds the Chicago music faculty recognized “something different, something new,” and “a different kind of profile and repertoire” that also fit with a new mandate to branch out, musically, with the resident ensembles of the future.

Whether that mandate, and the first new resident ensemble to embody it, will succeed as envisioned remains to be seen.

“The jury is still out,” said Christensen. “They’ve only really been doing some of the classroom visits and coachings. But so far, so good. We’ve been happy with what we’ve heard. … I’m looking forward to hearing them [in concert] next week.”

Amy Iwano, executive director of the University of Chicago Presents concert series, said one plus of the new partnership is getting to put “a premier wind ensemble,” of which there are few, in front of audiences who probably equate chamber music with strings.

“I welcome change and I welcome diversity, and I know people don’t think of wind music as chamber music,” Iwano said, describing a two-fold mission to familiarize more people with the genre and to add to its repertoire, which is small in comparison to strings. 

To that end, Iwano and Imani Winds have joined with another wing of the university to commission three new works that will have their world premieres May 3 by Imani Winds. The occasion is this year’s citywide centenary of the late Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks, a longtime South Side resident and, in 1950, the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize for literature.

“We thought, what better way to celebrate Gwendolyn Brooks and the entire centennial than to have new works written,” said Ellis.

Iwano also tapped the university’s Center for Study of Race, Politics, and Culture, which is helping to underwrite the commissions.

The three composers are: Ellis’s Imani Winds colleague Coleman; Nkeiru Okoye, a Nigerian-American from New York best known for her opera Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom; and Courtney Bryan, a pianist and assistant professor of music and jazz studies at Tulane University in New Orleans. Ellis and her colleague, Scott, said they expect to receive the finished scores and begin rehearsing in February.

In the meantime, Ellis said she is grateful for the continuity that a two-year residency provides, and still excited to turn people on to music made by wind instruments. 

“I didn’t know a bassoon could do that,” is a phrase Ellis said she still hears a lot. “And I love that,” she continued. “I love that we are the group that is showing the breadth of the sound and the technique and the capacity.”

The Imani Winds perform 7:30 p.m. Friday at Mandel Hall.

Sean Piccoli is a freelance writer based in New York covering music, culture and news.

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