Two pieces by Reena Esmail highlighted the Eastern Inspirations concert presented by Chamber Music Northwest on July 18 at Kaul Auditorium. The Indian-American composer has been a rising star due to her talent for blending aspects of Indian music with Western styles in an enchanting way (read Angela Allen’s recent profile here). Esmail’s brief pieces for solo violin, played by her husband Vijay Gupta, were the most exotic sounds in a program that included works by Kaija Saariaho, Henry Cowell, and Maurice Ravel. It was an eclectic mix that stretched my ears.
The concert started with “Bihag,” the first movement from Esmail’s Darshan. Gupta, who received the MacArthur “Genius” grant for his visionary work with music for and with the homeless in Los Angeles, introduced “Bihag” by reciting a poem by James Agee, “Sure on this Shining Night.” With his unaccompanied violin, Gupta elicited all sorts of microtones and interesting harmonics by carefully sliding between notes. Although the program booklet explained that the piece “explores grief in its many facets and forms,” I found it fairly uplifting rather than sad–but that might be due to my cultural perspective.
Gupta also performed Esmail’s When the Violin (2020), which was influenced by the raag (raga) Charukeshi and the poetry of the 14th century Sufi poet, Hafiz. Gupta enticed the audience with plaintive, sliding tones that would flow upward and leap to a higher note that was often followed a partial step down – like a grace note. Other brief phases wiggled about until resolving in a delightful way.
Between Esmail’s pieces, Gupta played Nocturne, which Finnish composer Saariaho wrote in 1994 in response to the death of Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski. With this piece, Gupta delicately created an elegiac sound that included extended trills, isolated pizzicatos, random-like notes, scratchy tones, and weeping glissandos. It was unhurried and played with great sensitivity.
The three violin pieces proved to be an excellent appetizer for Henry Cowell’s Set of Five, an oddly enticing work that Cowell infused with his usual amalgam of Asian influences and instruments. Played by pianist Ellen Hwangbo, violinist Benjamin Beilman, and percussionist Ian Rosenbaum (who is a member of Sandbox Percussion), Set of Five had an exotic flare that must have sounded extremely unusual for audiences when Cowell finished the piece in 1952.
With Rosenbaum tapping gongs arranged on a table, the first movement stepped lightly in dance-like fashion. The second picked up the pace, featuring the xylophone, violin, and piano. The combo quickly motored forward until suddenly stopping – sort of in mid-sentence – at the very end of the movement. The third slowed down a bit and evoked a rhapsodic quality. Rosenbaum’s elegant style on the drums was fun to watch. In the fourth, Hwangbo and Beilman created a dizzying blur of notes as each seemed to chase the other like two bees while Rosenbaum rapped on bowls. The final movement burst into forte with Hwangbo smashing her elbow occasionally on the keyboard and playing on strings that were weighted down to create a distorted sound. Beilman soared on a thread of very high notes, and Rosenbaum played the chimes before switching to the drums. The trio concluded the piece emphatically, which added even more sparkle to Cowell’s piece.
Perhaps to rebalance the program in a Westerly direction, the second half of the concert featured Ravel’s Basque-influenced Piano Trio in A Minor, which he completed in 1914 just before joining his compatriots in The Great War. Pianist Gloria Chien, violinist Beilman, and cellist Efe Baltacigil polished this gem of a piece with gusto.
Elegantly and passionately from the outset, the Piano Trio flowed with intensity. Chien was very attentive to her colleagues and her pianism was top notch, so their dynamics were absolutely in sync. Beilman made the technically difficult sections look effortless. Baltacigil’s soft but firm cello underscored the tenderest passages. Together the ensemble created moments that were ethereal as if floating on a cloud in the first movement. The fast tempo and surges of sound propelled the second movement impressively. That contrasted superbly with the introspective and low-lying dirge in the third movement before erupting in the final movement with a spring-like flourish. With Chien, Beilman, and Baltacigil in a mind meld, the music soared with great emotion, climaxing with a triumphant finale.