Artist Interview: Imani Winds

By Erik Petersons on October 31, 2012

Since their three-year absence from our stage, the Imani Winds have continued their Legacy Project–commissioning and premiering works from diverse musical backgrounds–and launched an annual Chamber Music Festival on the Juilliard campus for young instrumentalists.  Their commitment to new music and education is seen in their return to Philadelphia with both their Sunday, November 11th concert at the Art Museum and their children’s concert and master class the following day at St. Francis de Sales School (in partnership with Play on Philly!).  Recently I spoke with Monica Ellis (bassoonist) about the group's work with the composers featured on their program as well as their interest in working with students.

Erik Petersons: Your program is titled East Meets West and features new works that were inspired by your collaboration with Simon Shaheen, a composer you have worked with before.  Are there new sounds and techniques you discovered while performing music of the Middle East?

Monica Ellis: This program features other pieces that were indeed inspired by our collaboration with Simon Shaheen. Working with him opened our ears to an entirely new world of maqam scales. Maqam being modes that are as intricate and exact as any traditional Western classical scale, yet are constructed of quarter tones. Simon's ear is so incredibly keen on quarter tones.  He truly "took us to school" and enforced that our intonation and fingerings were nothing but perfect in order to achieve the proper scale (maqam), of which there are several. The program we're playing with PCMS will feature pieces written by composers from several parts of the world, from our flutist, Valerie Coleman, to Egyptian composer Gamel Abdel-Rahim to an arrangement of The Rite of Spring!

EP: The Imani Winds have a strong commitment to education.  The day after you perform with PCMS, you will be working with students at St. Francis de Sales School in West Philadelphia.  What drives your interest in working with students?  What do you hope they take away from the experience?

ME: Working with students has always been a very important part of our platform and mission. It's vital that we share and pass along the knowledge that we have achieved through our years of training. We're driven because we had wonderful and influential teachers during our upbringing, so we think of it as “paying it forward.”  We hope that we can give as we were given to. We hope that the students we visit with will get a sense of what it's like to be a professional musician in the 21st century. Many skills are required to be a well-rounded musician, more than just being proficient at your instrument, and we make a specific point to talk about what's needed to be successful in today's market.

EP: As you celebrate your 15th anniversary as an ensemble, what is your proudest moment looking back over the ensemble’s career?  What are your goals moving forward? 

ME: Probably our proudest moment is being nominated for a Grammy Award. It is nice to just be invited to the party! Looking forward, our goals are to continue to make important, influential and good music that will hopefully change people's lives.

The Imani Winds appear on Sunday, November 11th at 8 PM at the Philadelphia Art Museum.  For tickets and information, visit our website or call the PCMS Box Office at 215.569.8080.