Few woodwind quintets make the international scene let alone survive years of togetherness. The Imani Winds is the exception on both counts. Formed in 1997, the Grammynominated quintet still boasts the same personnel and has a following on at least two continents. The Imani will debut tonight at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall.
“We’ve been lucky,” said clarinetist Mariam Adam a few weeks ago from Arizona, where the group was on tour. “It’s rare to have the same people but we’re friends. We get along and enjoy each other.”
That was not the case when flutist Valerie Coleman had the idea to form a quintet 17 years ago. Adam said that although she knew Coleman from the Aspen Music Festival, all the other players came through recommendations. Joining them were oboist Toyin SpellmanDiaz, bassoonist Monica Ellis and French hornist and composer Jeff Scott.
“We were all living in New York City and most of us were finished with graduate school,” Adam said. “We all also had a lot of experience growing up with chamber music.”
They named themselves Imani, which means faith in Swahili, and set to work with a daily sixhour rehearsal schedule even as they continued to freelance, teach and do solo recitals. They put on their own concerts and when possible got onto a venue’s series.
The major problem was the repertoire, which was limited.
“Valerie was also a composer and she wanted to bring life back to woodwind quintet,” Adam said. “We were digging between the cracks to find compositions. We wanted to avoid the boxed, canned, boring sound of the standard repertoire.”
They decided they’d have to go beyond what they’d learned in conservatory if they wanted to succeed. One of those ways was to incorporate jazz into the mix.
While all of them loved jazz, some had closer connections: SpellmanDiaz’s father wrote about jazz, Scott often played in big bands, and Adam had been a jazz drummer until she decided she not only played clarinet better but the instrument was easier to transport on the subway than a set of drums, she said with a laugh.
The Imani also began to explore the musical traditions of several cultures, such as those of Africa and Latin America, and all types of new music.
“We became committed to having a bigger sound than the average wind quintet,” Adam said, “and to pushing that sound onto people.”
The next level
After winning a few smaller competitions, the Imani realized they had something special, but it would take sacrifice to get to the next level.
“We began saying no to gigs and took some needed coaching,” Adam said. “And we went full time in 2000. It was the only way to move forward.”
Over the next several years, Imani won such competitions as the Concert Artist Guild International, which selected them as its first Educational Residency Ensemble and gave them two years of management, and the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition.
They also became part of the Chamber Music of Lincoln Center II threeyear residency program, which Adam said was especially pivotal. Imani also won ASCAP’s Award for Adventurous Programming, WQXR’s Award for their first disc “Umoja”; and were nominated for the 2006 Grammy Award for their disc “The Classical Underground” (El Music).
In 2008, Imani began its Legacy Commissioning Project, which premieres and tours new works, including those by Roberto Sierra, Stefon Harris, Simon Shaheen, Paquito D’Rivera, Wayne Shorter, and Mohammed Fairouz. In 2010, Imani launched a 10day summer Chamber Music Festival at the Juilliard School for young instrumentalists.
Both programs have proved very successful and continue today. Imani has also released eight other discs. Next season the group hopes to focus on the quintet plus piano repertoire with some new commissions and a fall CD release, Adam said.
To maintain this success, Imani keeps an almost constant touring schedule that annually numbers some 200 concerts, including four annual trips to Europe. While European audiences love their classics but are always intrigued by what American composers are doing, Adam said, American audiences have sometimes proved problematic.
“It’s common for us to hear that a venue has not had a woodwind quintet in 25 years, and at Duke University recently, never,” Adam said.
“Promoters don’t know the repertoire. The known repertoire is too common, so you can’t play it often. Instead, we weed out a lot of new works with reading sessions. It’s a constant thing to find that gem.”
Imani’s Troy program will include its hugely popular “Rite of Spring” arrangement, and works by Karel Husa, Coleman and Scott.