With five distinct voices, wind quintet ensembles have a universe of timbres and techniques at their disposal. Grouping the flute, oboe, clarinet, French horn and bassoon means a lack of homogeneous sound that offers tonal and technical possibility for composers. Yet, wind quintet repertoire by recognizable composers like Mozart, Brahms and Strauss is scarce.
However, the New York-based Imani Winds never let the dearth of marketable literature by name-brand composers dampen its adventurous spirit. Comprised of flutist Valerie Coleman, oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz, clarinetist Mark Dover, French horn player Jeff Scott and bassoonist Monica Ellis, the Grammy-nominated quintet has carved out its own path in the chamber music world for more than 20 years.
By performing culturally poignant programs, actively commissioning music by composers from diverse backgrounds, and offering inspirational outreach projects, Imani Winds has pushed boundaries and helped generate a new canon of wind quintet repertoire.
Revue talked with Ellis to learn more about Imani Winds and the group’s plans for an upcoming residency at Western Michigan University (WMU).
How does Imani Winds find freedom within the unique wind quintet structure, even with limited literature?
There have been many wind quintets before us, but we were one of the first to think about how the wind quintet can come out of the shadows of other chamber music groups. For pretty much the full existence of the group, we have commissioned composers to write new music for us. We are very fortunate to have in-house composers Jeff Scott and Valerie Coleman, who both really know as players and can exploit in the best of ways our individual skills.
What about work created outside your group?
In recent years, we’ve gone to arrangements of larger, orchestral works that can sit well within five instruments. For example, we’ve performed arrangements of The Rite of Spring, Scheherazade and The Planets. You have to go after a lot of out-of-the-box styles and thinking. We think of our differences within the quintet as attributes, and an opportunity to create all kinds of colors and a palette of sounds.
Last year, you celebrated your 20th anniversary as an ensemble. How have you cultivated unity over the years?
We definitely take pride in the compositions we choose to play and the high standards we have for ourselves. Our cultural heritage — mostly African-American — also means a lot to us. That connection among us has been a reason to stay with each other. Our clarinetist, Mark, is a Michigan native who joined us in 2015. While not the same ethnic background as Valerie, Toyin, Jeff and I, he is an absolute perfect fit with the powerful way we play to create sounds you don’t typically hear from these instruments, and also the intimacy they can create. Ultimately, we’re just a bunch of silly music nerds and a big family!
You’re currently a resident ensemble at the University of Chicago, a two-year appointment. How do you approach residencies of different time frames and in different communities?
We always create a curriculum that is specialized and caters to the needs of the institution through mutual conversation and idea sharing. With longer residencies like at the University of Chicago, we have the exciting opportunity to infiltrate the fabric of the school community. For a two- or three-day residency, like at WMU, we smash in a lot of activities into a small period of time. When it’s done well, you feel like you conquered the world. At WMU, we’ll conduct a master class as well as a chamber music master class in which students will get a chance to hear from all of us. We’ll do a reading session with composition students, which is a rare opportunity for them to write for wind quintet and have a group right there, ready to go with immediate feedback.
What are some of the works you’ll present during your culminating concert at the Dalton Center Recital Hall?
Jeff and Valerie are always the bookends for our programs. We’ll start with a fun, early jazz type of tune by Jeff, Startin’ Sumthin’. Then we’ll play a standard, yet underplayed quintet by John Harbison. It’s a fantastic masterwork, a multi-movement piece with interesting personalities for each. Next are the Ligeti bagatelles, which are very recognized. We’ll play one of our more recent commissions by an Indian-American woman, Reena Esmail, called The Light is the Same. To close, we’ll play one of Valerie’s pieces called Be Gone, a driving work celebrating music of an Eastern flavor.
Imani Winds Concert
Dalton Center Recital Hall
Van De Giessen Rd. #3001, Kalamazoo
Feb. 28, 7:30 p.m, $5-$12
wmich.edu/music/events/bullock, (269) 387-2458