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All these ways of being: The musical worlds of Reena Esmail

An exchange with the Indian-American composer, featured recently at Chamber Music Northwest and set to return next month as this year’s Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival composer-in-residence.

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Reena Esmail. Photo courtesy of the composer.
Reena Esmail. Photo: Rachel Garcia

Reena Esmail’s cross-cultural music is making star turns in Oregon concerts this summer.

At two Chamber Music Northwest concerts July 17 and 18, violinist Vijay Gupta–who happens to be Esmail’s husband–played her Darshan: Bihag and When the Violin. After the concert, Portland composer David Schiff called Gupta “a rock star” and was blown away by Esmail’s music, which was preceded by poetry and delivered with an intensity that the couple holds in common.

As the summer progresses, more opportunities arise to hear the vivacious 39-year-old composer’s work played by a different crop of excellent string musicians. Esmail will be serving as the composer-in-residence at the 7th annual Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival during the first three weekends in August, and several of her pieces will be showcased at each of the six weekend concerts. She follows an impressive composer-in-residence lineup: Osvaldo Golijov, Gabriela Lena Frank, Joan Tower, Jessie Montgomery and Daniel Bernard Roumain were each a part of WVCMF in past seasons. 

For starters this summer, Esmail’s Zeher, inspired by her Covid battle with a debilitating strep throat (“zeher” translates as “poison”), will be played August 6 and 7 by the six WVCMF string players at Sokol Blosser Winery west of Portland. The festival’s theme of the week is introspection. Pieces by Kevin Days, Leonora Duarte and W.A. Mozart make up the the balance of the program (check the schedule at Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival).

“Love” emerges as the second week’s theme Aug. 13 and 14, at J. Christopher Winery in Newberg, where Esmail will be on site for post-concert appearances. Concerts will feature her West Coast premiere, “New Work for Soprano, Violin, and Cello,” based on a love of art, with the concert’s second half bringing to life her String Quartet “Ragamala.” The latter piece is inspired by classical Indian painting, also called ragamala, that aims to capture the crossover of painting, poetry and music in Indian court art.

“The unifying subject of a `Ragamala’ is love, evoked as a range of specific emotions (rasa) that have a corresponding musical form,” said Sasha Callahan, WVCMF co-artistic director/violinist with husband and cellist Leo Eguchi. Osvaldo Golijov’s How Slow the Wind and Robert Schumann’s String Quartet No. 2 are also part of the concert. 

With “Celebration” as the unifying theme of the music during week three, Aug. 20 and 21 at Archery Summit Winery outside of Dundee, concert-goers will hear Esmail’s irrepressible Teen Murti. Joseph Bologne’s Sonata for Two Violins in A Major, Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 59 No. 3 and Kareem Roustom’s Letters Home about his war-ravaged homeland, Syria, comprise the rest of the program.

Indian cultural roots

Esmail was born, educated and lives in the United States (Los Angeles, where she grew up); her biological and cultural roots are Indian. Her mother spent her childhood in Kenya, but she comes from India’s Portuguese-influenced Goan culture. Her father is Indian, though his family lived in Pakistan after the mid-century Partition occurred. Both parents reside in Los Angeles in the same house they bought in 1986 when they moved to California from Chicago, Esmail’s birthplace. As Esmail said, there was a lot of diversity, and there were a lot of choices. “All these ways of being were so wonderful.”

It wasn’t until she was part-way through her undergraduate studies in Western classical composition at Juilliard that she realized she had to forge her own path to restore her musical roots, she said in a July Zoom meeting with chamber music enthusiasts led by Callahan and Eguchi.

Reena Esmail. Photo courtesy of the composer.
Reena Esmail. Photo courtesy of the composer.

And that’s where it all started—her desire to bridge Hindustani and Western classical music. In spanning two different musical worlds, she is one of the few South Asian composers bringing her Hindustani-influenced music to Western musicians — and vice versa. Most everyone who listens to and writes about her music notices and notes that she is able to gracefully move back and forth between two very different musical styles. “My music is halfway between both,” she said. “It connects Indian and Western music.”

She further explained her reasoning for learning more about Indian music in an interview with Oregon Arts Watch. Responding to questions by sound files, she said: “When I was young, I was excited by music. I just loved music, the art form. As I got older I realized that studying Western classical music was separating me from people who shared my own culture. There are only a handful of South Asians in my generation who are trained in both classical Western and classical Indian music. The older I get, the lonelier I was going to be unless I could find others who shared my culture.” 

Esmail went on to get her masters and doctoral degrees from Yale University’s School of Music, and won a Fulbright to study Hindustani music in India in 2011-2012. With both Western and Hindustani music in her range and repertoire, she has produced scores of  compositions for symphony, chamber and choral music, and such solo instruments as cello, violin, piano and bassoon, though she herself shies away from performing in front of an audience due to stage fright, especially with the piano, her main  instrument. Her website shows 96 different works for sale as well as her many awards, commissions and appointments, including Seattle Symphony’s composer-in-residence position in 2020-21, her work with Street Symphony in which she composed music for the unhoused in Los Angeles, and her role as artistic director of Shastra, a non-profit organization connecting music traditions of India and the West.

She has impressed music critics for more than 10 years, and is singled out as a versatile Indian-American composer who seeks to find common ground with original music from both sides of the globe. Los Angeles Master Chorale artistic director Grant Gershon, who conducted Esmail’s This Love Between Us: Prayers for Unity in 2018, described her music as ”crystal-clear, beautiful, thought-provoking, and unlike anything I’ve ever heard before.”

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Chamber music: her thing

Esmail most eagerly writes chamber music over other kinds of music, finding it intimate and easier to teach to Western musicians than orchestral music–in part because she often has to sing to get the idea across. She has written pieces for such chamber groups as Imani Winds, Santa Fe Pro Musica and Kronos Quartet.

Hindustani music is primarily improvised, whereas Western classical notes are written down. In Hindustani music, counterpoint and harmony don’t exist as they do in Western music. A raga, the flexible backbone of Hindustani music, she says, is “a scale with personality, a collection of pitches, a collection of melodic fragments. It has a lot more aesthetic info and context than a scale in Western music.” 

Her biggest challenge in teaching her music to Western musicians is that “they have to metabolize so much by ear. Hindustani music is an oral tradition. People succeed the best when they can pick things up by listening as much as by reading.”

Her intention is not to make Hindustani musicians out of Western performers: “I want musicians to find a space where they are comfortable playing my music. Some play it like early romantic music and that’s OK.”  Not everyone has the same take, she added, and both she and the musicians learn more about how they process music.

Esmail has little fear that WVCMF string musicians—violinists, a violist and two cellists—will have trouble playing her pieces in August. “The performers have the most major role in contextualizing the music. These performers will do a great job.”

Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she’s a member of the Music Critics Association of North America and a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.

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