Angela Allen

Neither a note of Bach nor Beethoven, Mozart nor Mendelssohn was played–but three world premieres by Pacific Northwest composers of color amply compensated for Old World nostalgia at Imani Winds’ sold-out concert April 28 at the Alberta Rose Theatre in Northeast Portland.

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

The “We Cannot Walk Alone” concert was a first collaboration for the groups, and a response in part to the changing and volatile times sparked by Black Lives Matter and today’s social justice movements. Unfortunately, a similar May 1 concert was canceled in Ashland due to Imani musicians coming down with Covid. It will likely be rescheduled in the fall, Anima Mundi’s Ethan Gans-Morse said.

Three world premieres in one concert is a big deal, and an even bigger deal when a wind quintet, such as the extraordinary New York-based 23-year-old Imani Winds, makes them come to life. Though I was unable to attend the concert, I reviewed from an audio recording. Imani members explained and introduced the music, giving greater depth and understanding to each composition. I appreciate the inside stories, and such efforts enrich the listening experience. This added further robustness to the niche concert, and though I couldn’t feel the room’s vibe or see the musicians playing, I heard plenty.

Imani Winds has been a regular with Chamber Music Northwest in the past two decades, showing up in Portland for numerous concerts, artists-in-residence stints, and educational events. CMNW has commissioned works by them, especially those of Valerie Coleman–the flutist founder no longer with the quintet, the leader who named the group “Imani,” the Swahili word for “faith.” From its beginning, the quintet has been filled with Black and Latlno/Latina musicians, and until recently when it added clarinetist Mark Dover, it never veered from that original principle.

The quintet plays a wide range of music, from traditional classical repertoire to jazz to utterly unclassifiable new music, and has collaborated with musicians from the late jazz pianist Chick Corea to Portland’s Fear No Music’s composer/violist Kenji Bunch. Still, Imani Winds remains forever on the hunt for new music and regularly commissions pieces. Unlike string ensembles, a wind quintet—clarinet, oboe, bassoon, flute and French horn—is not prolifically written for.

So this program, tailor-made for the musicians with unheard-before music, likely proved one of Imani Winds’ most blissful and fulfilling performances. They certainly played like that.

The premieres unfurled after intermission, and they were the jewels in the crown of an elegantly curated contemporary program, but they weren’t the only sparkling pieces. Haitian-American Nathalie Joachim’s 2011 Seen, which touched on found objects, had a wonderful second movement, “This Old House,” based on bassoonist Monica Ellis’ mother’s house. Being cleaned out for sale in Pittsburgh, the house was spilling over with a lifetime of treasures and family possessions, and Joachim wrote with that inspiration. Ellis, who bonded with quintet-mate oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz at Manhattan School of Music, gives the little-heard bassoon (except in this group!) vibrancy and humor.

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

The premieres began with del Aguila’s 12-minute Blindfold Music, recounting an animated conversation between the Law (what we’re supposed to do) and Justice (what your conscience says is right), as del Aguila explained at the concert. “My music expresses intimate feelings … and is usually straightforward,” but with this composition, it moved from confrontation to acceptance without a happy ending. “My music is the soundtrack of 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, bassoonist Ellis said, was not easy to play.

Yuan-Chen Li’s subtle seven-minute A Railroad to Dreams touches on the late 19th-century Chinese workers who built America’s railroads, but with the caveat that they toiled at the backbreaking work to realize their dreams of the future and family. So the piece, scattered with the shimmering sounds of Brandon Patrick George’s flute, is optimistic and dreamlike rather than crushingly sad.

And, finally, multi-talented composer / singer / Portland Opera co-artistic advisor Damien Geter. His eight-minute I Said What I Said captured the continuing agitation and repetition of the Black conversation to make it clear “how we must constantly defend ourselves against those whose equity lens is tainted,” as Geter explained in the program notes. His, too, is ultimately a positive piece, though unsettling, based on the idea–sometimes the cold truth–that Blacks must convince others that they should have a place in the world, as French horn player Kevin Newton said when introducing the piece.

Geter was not at the concert, but in the past several years he has earned significant accolades and press for his compositions, directing and leadership. His long-awaited An African American Requiem premiered May 7 in a live broadcast from The Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. See Brett Campbell’s Oregon Arts Watch story on the fast-rising composer’s first major work.

Who received the loudest applause? Composers? Musicians? Producers? Who knows. They need each other and can’t walk alone. And word is, concert-goers were dancing in the theater, though I was not there to witness it.