Many question whether classical music can survive its self-inflicted wounds: aging, demographically narrow (read: predominantly old, white, rich) audiences; endless recycling of the same old tunes from long-dead European composers; bloodless performances in audience-unfriendly settings, etc. The answer, my friend, is blowing in the winds — Imani Winds. Since 1997, the quintet’s concerts have mixed classical, jazz and world music, much of it contemporary, some composed by group members. As a result, their concerts regularly attract large, ecstatic audiences that are younger, more varied and more engaged than just about any others in classical music. The ensemble’s increasing acclaim has produced Grammy nominations, world tours, performances at all of America’s most prestigious classical venues and five recordings.
At 6 pm Sunday, Feb. 16, Imani returns to the University of Oregon’s Chamber Music@Beall series. Along with The Rite of Spring, that revolutionary ballet score that ignited 20th-century music, their Eugene program also features other 20th-century classics by Debussy and Astor Piazzolla. But the big attractions are new music from living American composers: excerpts from Imani flutist Valerie Coleman from Imani’s tribute to the great American dancer/singer Josephine Baker, who ruled Paris cabarets in the 1920s; a new work by Imani hornist Jeff Scott; and a new quintet the group commissioned from one of the 21st century’s most fascinating and far-sighted jazzers, Jason Moran.
“That’s what we’re most proud of,” oboist Toyin Spellman says, “expanding the repertoire by adding new sounds, like the premieres by two different jazz composers, Wayne Shorter and Jason Moran, on our new album [Terra Incognita]. Imani Winds is constantly listening to new composers, trying to think of ideas to link our program together and make a theme that inspires the audience and the performer to feel like you’re in a special space to come to a performance.”
Along with playing and commissioning the listener-friendly music of our time, Imani also achieves that sense of greatness and connection by reaching out to audiences through young people’s concerts, chats after concerts and a genuinely welcoming vibe. “Our whole mission is to inspire the people who come to our concerts, and the inspiration doesn’t just come from playing,” Spellman explains. “It comes from the audience knowing the ensemble members and showing our personalities. That way when they hear us play our instruments, they know us.”