Shaking up classical music: Grammy-nominated Imani Winds highlights diverse sounds, perspectives

“We felt like ... it was time for a change to come to what was called quote-unquote classical music.” —Toyin Spellman-Diaz, oboist in Imani Winds

When members of the Imani Winds learned they were nominated for a 2006 Grammy Award, they couldn’t contain their excitement. 

“I think the first thing I did was call Valerie and we screamed in each other’s ears,” said Toyin Spellman-Diaz, an oboist for the wind quintet, referencing flutist and composer Valerie Coleman. “It’s just a validation of all the work you’ve been putting into this ensemble and into your life, so that was great.” 

A highlight, they say, was walking past fellow Grammy-nominated artist Beyoncé. They didn’t win in 2006, but their proven success has made them a highly sought-after wind quintet that not only represents diversity in classical music, but that also gives back through teaching.

Members of the Imani Winds include Jeff Scott (french horn and composer), Monica Ellis (bassoon), Spellman-Diaz (oboe), Coleman (flute and composer) and Mark Dover (clarinet), who became the newest member after joining in 2015.

Grammy-award winning wind quintet Imani Winds has carved out a unique lane in classical music with its diverse sounds and perspectives. The group has four albums(Photo courtesy of Imani Winds)

The group has released four albums, including the Grammy-nominated “The Classical Underground,” and has toured all over the world since its founding 20 years ago. The Imani Winds has performed in places such as New Zealand, Brazil, Paris and China. 

One of the draws of the ensemble is its unique ability to combine diverse sounds, including African, Latin American and American influences. 

“We felt like … it was time for a change to come, to what was called quote-on-quote classical musical,” Spellman-Diaz said. “And it was time for it to expand in a new way, and so we thought we could have a say in that.”

In November, the Imani Winds made a stop at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. 

“Two years ago we had them here, and people were weeping in the audience,” said Sarah Schmalenberger, an associate music professor at St. Thomas who invited the award-winning group to return to perform and teach at t‌he Upper Midwest Chamber Winds Symposium at St. Thomas.

She added: “This is the best musical ensemble that has ever been on this campus.” 

They’re not just musicians. They’re also teachers. From performing at elementary schools and critiquing masterclasses, the Imani Winds continues to share its passion with others.

The group spent part of its visit to Minnesota with band students at St. Paul Central High School. 

“Outreach is something that we’re really intensely passionate about because we all grew up in the public-school system,” Dover said, “and none of us would be where we were if it weren’t for those public music programs.”

In 2008, the Imani Winds started the Legacy Commissioning Project, in which the group commissions and premieres new works by composers from diverse musical backgrounds. It also holds the annual Imani Winds Chamber Music Festival, a 10-day intensive summer program that includes masterclasses, coaching, workshops and more at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City.

Through 2018, the group also is theUniversity of Chicago's Don Michael Randel Ensemble-in-Residence. As part of the residency, the Imani Winds collaborates with students and the music department and features world premieres at the university, according to the group’s website.

Still, they say performing on stage together is the best part about being a member of the ensemble. Even after thousands of performances over two decades, they still get nerves – and it wasn’t any different when they took the stage at the O’Shaughnessy Educational Center at the University of St. Thomas campus in the fall. 

“The day of the concert I usually like to have pretty much nothing else going on,” Dover said. “I really want to just relax, so I’ll watch a movie or just call my wife, because you know, I usually get quite nervous.”