Chamber music mash-up

Imani Winds throws expectations out the window

Peter Alexander | Boulder Weekly

A tango-like serenade from Argentina? Check.


Music by a jazz musician? Check.

Straight-up Americana?

Russian primitivism? Jewish celebration music? Check, check and check. Add a piece by a local composer, and the program by the Imani Winds has just about every cultural tradition you could fit into one concert.

But that’s part of the point with the Imani Winds, which will perform that program at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 19, in Macky Auditorium as part of the CU Presents concert series.

In fact, the distinctive woodwind quintet was founded on the ideal of breaking new ground, both in its makeup — all five members are musicians of color — and in its programming, which joins traditional European concert music with music from other cultures, especially African-American and Latin American.

The quintet was started in 1997 by their flutist, Valerie Coleman. She did what a lot of musicians do when they are just starting a career in New York: She made phone calls to some other young freelancers and put together an ensemble. It’s sort of a “Let’s put on a show!” rite of passage for musicians.

But Coleman had a larger vision before she even made the first call. As the group’s clarinetist, Miriam Adam — whose heritage includes Egyptian and Mexican — explains, “Valerie’s original desire was to champion the music of underrepresented composers that were not strictly Western European, and to bring a new interpretation of classical music from our perspective, as musicians of color.”

But Adam quickly adds, “When this group started we had no way of making money, so it really was a leap of faith — which is what Imani means.”

From that original leap of faith, Imani Winds has prospered to the point that the group represents a full time job for the members. They have toured major concert venues across the country and recorded five CDs.

Just this month, Boston Globe critic Harlowe Robinson wrote that the Imani Winds are “recognized by many as the leading wind quintet in America,” noting that the group “revels in challenging preconceptions about ‘classical’ music and musicians.”

As the ensemble has matured and earned more success, the focus has changed.

“Now it’s really about the music, and it’s about the energy and the spirit that we bring to chamber music,” Adam says.

One thing that’s definitely “about the music” is Imani’s desire to expand the repertoire for woodwind quintet, to get beyond the classics and present music that reflects contemporary styles. In particular, they have worked with musicians from outside the classical mainstream, including jazz artists Stefon Harris, Wayne Shorter and Paquito D’Rivera.

As an outgrowth of their interest in new repertoire, Imani recently established their Legacy Commissioning Project. Starting as a celebration of the ensemble’s 10th anniversary in 2007, it has expanded to a fiveyear project with two new works each year.

“It’s the idea of having wind quintet repertoire that will live beyond our lifetime,” Adam says. “That’s how [the Legacy Project] was born, and it continues.”

To return to that checklist of different cultures, Friday’s program will open with the “Serenata” of Argentinean composer Carlos Franzetti, followed by one of the Legacy Commissions, “Cane” by jazz pianist Jason Moran. A striking and highly personal work based on his family’s history, “Cane” was Moran’s first work for classically trained musicians. Also on the program will be American composer Samuel Barber’s “Summer Music,” a movement from “Suite Cantabile” by Boulder resident Bill Douglas, Jonathan Russell’s arrangement of music from Stravinksy’s 1913 ballet “Rite of Spring,” and a pair of Jewish Klezmer dances arranged by Gene Kavaldo.

Nothing on the program may be more startling than the “Rite of Spring” arrangement. Written for a large orchestra, “The Rite of Spring” was so violently expressionistic that it created a riot at its Paris premiere. It’s not a likely piece for a chamber concert.

“It’s what we call a chop-buster,” Adam admits. But, she says, “we are a rock ’n’ roll ensemble, dynamic-wise, and we can really create a big sound. I think that’s why ‘The Rite of Spring’ works.”

But in the end, more than the sound, or the repertoire, or the musicians’ identities, Imani performances are about reaching an audience.

“One thing we tell students all the time,” Adam says, is that “chamber music, at least in our niche, has 100 percent job satisfaction. You know, we’re doing what we love to do, we’re doing what we were allowed to develop a passion for, and that always is infectious. It always is.”

On the Bill

Imani Winds plays
Macky Auditorium on Friday, Nov. 19. Show starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets
start at $12. University Avenue, CU campus, 303-492-8008.