Imani Winds Presents Northwest Composers at Alberta Rose Theater

Imani Winds at the Alberta Rose Theatre, April 2022. Photo by Tom Emerson.

Neither a note from Bach nor Beethoven, Mozart or Mendelssohn was played, but three world premieres by composers of color from the Pacific Northwest more than made up for the Old World nostalgia at Imani winds‘ sold-out concert on April 28 at Alberta Rose Theater in northeast Portland.

Two of the newly commissioned composers, Damien Geter and Yuan Chen Li, live in Portland; Miguel Del Aguila is an Uruguay-born musician from Seattle. The concert and orders were a joint effort of Northwest Chamber Music, Anima Mundi Productions of Ashland (who did a season and a mission of sponsoring BIPOC concerts), and Eugene’s Oregon Bach Festival.

The “We Cannot Walk Alone” concert was an early collaboration for the bands and a response in part to the changing and unstable times sparked by Black Lives Matter and today’s social justice movements. Unfortunately, a similar concert on May Day was canceled in Ashland due to the arrival of Imani musicians with Covid. It will probably be rescheduled in the fall, according to Anima Mundi Ethan GansMorse mentioned.

Three world premieres in one concert is a big deal, and even more so when a wind quintet, like 23-year-old New York extraordinaire Imani Winds, brings them to life. Although I was unable to attend the concert, I reviewed from an audio recording. The members of Imani explained and introduced the music, giving more depth and understanding to each composition. I appreciate inner stories, and such efforts enrich the listening experience. It added more robustness to the niche gig, and while I couldn’t feel the vibe of the room or see the musicians playing, I heard a lot.

Imani Winds has been a regular at Chamber Music Northwest for the past two decades, showing up in Portland for numerous concerts, artist residencies and educational events. The CMNW has commissioned works from them, including those of Valerie Colman-the founding flautist is no longer with the quintet, the leader who named the group “Imani”, the Swahili word for “faith”. Since its inception, the quintet has been filled with black and Latino/Latina musicians, and until recently when it added clarinetist Mark Dover, he never deviated from this original principle.

Imani Winds at the Alberta Rose Theatre, April 2022. Photo by Tom Emerson.
From left to right: Monica Ellis, Kevin Newton, Mark Dover. Photo by Tom Emerson.

The quintet plays a wide range of music, from traditional classical repertoire to jazz and completely unclassifiable new music, and has collaborated with musicians from the late jazz pianist Korea chick in Portland Kenji Bunch, composer/violist of Fear No Music. However, Imani Winds is always on the lookout for new music and regularly commissions pieces. Unlike string ensembles, a wind quintet – clarinet, oboe, bassoon, flute and French horn – is not written prolifically.

So this program, tailor-made for musicians with unreleased music, probably turned out to be one of Imani Winds’ happiest and most fulfilling performances. They certainly played like that.

The premieres took place after intermission, and they were the crown jewels of an elegantly curated contemporary program, but they weren’t the only sparkling pieces. Haitian-American At Nathalie Joachim’s 2011 Seenwhich evoked found objects, had a wonderful second movement, “This Old House”, based on bassoonist Monica Ellis’ mother’s house. Being cleared for sale in Pittsburgh, the house was overflowing with a lifetime of treasures and family heirlooms, and Joachim wrote with that inspiration. Ellis, who bonded with a quintet oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz to Manhattan School of Music, gives the little heard bassoon (except in this group!) dynamism and humor.

Imani Winds at the Alberta Rose Theatre, April 2022. Photo by Tom Emerson.
Bassoonist Imani Monica Ellis at the Alberta Rose Theatre, April 2022. Photo by Tom Emerson.

jazz pianist by Jason Moran 2008 piece Cane followed the journey of her enslaved and eventually freed great-great-great-grandmother (no one knows how many greats): from Togo to the Natchitoches River in Louisiana, to the bewildering monotony of slave labor, to the liberation of her children one by one, to Moran’s life in Harlem, where he and his wife raised twin sons. Moran is a jazz advisor at Kennedy Center and another colleague from the Manhattan School of Music, and his ever-changing beats shape the backbone of Cane.

Premieres began with del Aguila’s 12-minute film music blindfolded, recounting a heated conversation between Law (what we’re supposed to do) and Justice (what your conscience says is right), as del Aguila explained during the concert. “My music expresses intimate feelings…and is usually simple,” but with this composition, it went from confrontation to acceptance with no happy ending. “My music is the soundtrack to my mind,” he said, and if you listen to his work you will see his remarkable gift for tracing and expressing feelings through intricate instrumentation. The piece, said bassoonist Ellis, was not easy to play.

The Seven Subtle Minutes of Yuan-Chen Li A railroad to dreams evokes the late 19th century Chinese workers who built America’s railroads, but with the caveat that they worked hard to achieve their dreams of a future and a family. Thus the room, dotted with the shimmering sounds of Brandon Patrick George’s flute, is upbeat and dreamlike rather than overwhelmingly sad.

Imani Winds at the Alberta Rose Theatre, April 2022. Photo by Tom Emerson.
Brandon Patrick George, flautist of Imani, at the Alberta Rose Theatre, April 2022. Photo by Tom Emerson.

And, finally, Damien Geter, multi-talented composer/singer/artistic co-advisor of the Portland Opera. Its eight minutes I said what I said captured the continued turmoil and repetition of black talk to make clear “how we must constantly defend ourselves against those whose fairness objective is tainted,” as Geter explained in the program notes. His, too, is ultimately a positive, albeit unsettling, piece based on the idea – sometimes the cold truth – that black people need to convince others that they should have a place in the world, as a player of french horn. Kevin Newton said while presenting the coin.

Geter was not at the concert, but in recent years he has received significant accolades and press for his songwriting, direction, and leadership. long-awaited sound An African-American requiem premiered on May 7 in a live broadcast of The Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. See Brett Campbell’s story in Oregon Arts Watch about the burgeoning composer’s first major work.

Imani Winds at the Alberta Rose Theatre, April 2022. Photo by Tom Emerson.
Imani horn player Kevin Newton at the Alberta Rose Theatre, April 2022. Photo by Tom Emerson.

Who received the loudest applause? Composers? The musicians? Producers? Who knows. They need each other and cannot walk alone. And the word is, concertgoers were dancing in the theater, even though I wasn’t there to witness it.

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