Seeing the Light with Reena Esmail

It’s not everyday that a wind quintet has the chance to learn music featuring Hindustani ragas – its part of what makes The Light Stays the Same a high light of our La Chambre performance.

Reena Esmail is a Chicago-born pianist, vocalist, and composer whose works have been commissioned by ensembles including the Los Angeles Master Chorale,  Kronos Quartet, Imani Winds, Richmond Symphony, Town Music Seattle,  Albany Symphony, Chicago Sinfonietta,  River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, San Francisco Girls Chorus, The Elora Festival, Juilliard415, and Yale Institute of Sacred Music.

Having studied with the likes of Susan Botti, Samuel Adler, and Aaron Jay Kernis, Esmail holds degrees in composition from The Juilliard School (BM’05) and the Yale School of Music (MM’11, MMA’14, DMA’18). She studied Hindustani music in India under Srimati Lakshmi Shankar and Gaurav Mazundar after receiving a grant from Fulbright-Nehru. Her doctoral thesis (“Finding Common Ground: Uniting Practices in Hindustani and Western Art Musicians”) explores the methods and challenges of the collaborative process between Hindustani musicians and Western composers.

A 2019 United States Artist Fellow in Music, she was also a 2017-18 Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow and a recipient of the S & R Foundation’s Washington Award. Esmail is currently serving as the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s 2020-2023 Swan Family Artist in Residence, and the Seattle Symphony’s 2020-21 Composer-in-Residence. Esmail is the current Artistic Director of Shastra, a non-profit organization devoted to promoting cross-cultural music connection between music traditions of India and Western countries.

Esmail describes her journey to create this musical work of art as having been inspired by an ancient verse of poetry. “In my search for texts for my oratorio, “This Love Between Us”, which I was writing concurrently, I came across these wise words from the 13th century Sufi mystic poet, Rumi. He states so beautifully that…

Religions are many

But God is one

The lamps may be different,

But the Light is the same

…[so] even if our methods for searching for meaning and happiness look very different, the things we seek are so similar.”

In developing “The Light is the Same” for orchestra, Esmail integrated two Hindustani raags into the melodic core of the piece. In Hindustani classical music, a “raag” (also referred to as a “raga”) is a framework for musical improvisation, similar to the melodic modes of Western classical music. Endless in their variation and each with their own name, a raag (literally translated to mean “coloring”) is specifically rendered to invoke certain feelings or moods in the mind and heart of the listener.

Esmail drew on the tones of Raag Vachaspati and Raag Yaman, respectively, because “the bhav, the aesthetic of these raags are so different: Vachaspati is dark, brooding, complex and dense. Yaman is light and innocent. And yet, practically speaking, only one note is different between them. The melodies they generate and the way they move makes them feel worlds apart, and yet their notes are almost [identical]. The piece begins in Vachaspati, in desolate, spare melodic lines. Slowly, as Yaman peeks through the dense harmonies, the two raags begin to weave together into a seamless composite.”

               Uniting Eastern and Western harmonies in a scintillating piece of evocative musical expression, Reena Esmail’s “The Light is the Same” represents an important shift in the evolution of music you cannot afford to miss.  Find it as part of our La Chambre concert.

Aftab Darvishi and the Daughters of Sol

The music of Aftab Darvishi is something you have to hear. Mystical and engaging, her music transports the listener – and the players – and is one of the nightlights of our season.

Born in Tehran, Iran in 1987, Aftab Darvishi grew up playing piano, violin, and Kamancheh. Her father (the composer Mohammad-Reza Darvishi) encouraged her musical aspirations, and she graduated with a degree in Music Performance/Composition from the University of Tehran with honors.

In 2010 Aftab moved to the Netherlands, studying Carnatic Music at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam and achieving a master’s degree in Composing for Film in 2012. Following additional composition studies at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague (while simultaneously studying Carnatic Music at the Conservatory of Amsterdam with Rafael Reina), she was awarded the Tenso Young Composers Award in 2016 for her piece for acapella choir entitled “And the world stopped Lacking you…”

Aftab has created over 40 musical works for various mediums and contexts (opera, chamber music, choir, dance, film/animation scores and art installations just to name a few), and has worked with orchestral groups in demand all over the world. In addition to collaborations with the HERMESensemble, Orkest De Ereprijs, Oerknal ensemble, Riccioti ensemble, and Royal Ensemble, Aftab has also had the privilege of being commissioned by Kronos Quartet.

In 2017, the Grammy Award-winning string ensemble of international renown commissioned Darvishi’s stunning “Daughters of Sol” for inclusion in their “Fifty for the Future” project. This ambitious musical initiative seeks to amalgamate repertoire that exemplifies “the most contemporary approaches to the string quartet, designed expressly for the training of students and emerging professionals.”

Aftab Darvishi’s work has been described as possessing a keen awareness of breath. David Harrington, artistic director of Kronos Quartet, has remarked that “her music is very alive in the most natural way.” The unusual combinations of melodic voicing in her work draw from the rich variety of musical traditions and cultural heritage she has encountered along her compositional path. In this way, it can be said that her music is always evolving.

Aftab has composed for choirs such as Latvian Radio Choir, BBC singers, Chamber Choir Ireland and Helsingin Kamarikuoro. Her music has been presented in festivals including Holland Festival, Lunalia festival, Operadagen Rotterdam, New music Dublin Festival, Tehran Contemporary Music Festival and Kronos Festival.

Of her award-winning work “Daughters of Sol”, Darvishi shares that she found its core inspiration in a poem by contemporary Iranian poet Ahmad Shamloo. Created through a deep connection to the Iranian folk music of her childhood, she explains that “…this piece contains gentle transitions and detailed changes, which leads to dissolving of different shades and colors. It is a constant evolution between shadows and lights. It is a journey about conveying gentle circular movements, which I think…resembles cycles of life. We evolve and dissolve in gentle and harsh conversions. We change colors, yet we tend to go back to our roots [in spite] of our differences.”

Regularly invited as a guest lecturer at the University of Tehran, Aftab’s opera “Turan Dokht” premiered last year at the Holland Festival to great acclaim. Like so many of her works for orchestra, “Daughters of Sol” is sure to leave you spellbound.

You can hear the SSO String Wuartet perform Daughters of Sol as part of the SSO’s La Chambre.



Rediscovering Louise Farrenc

Born in the early years of the 19th Century, French composer Louise Farrenc (nee Dumont) began her musical career as a piano student of Cecile Soria (a former student of Muzio Clementi). Louise devoured the musical repertoire given to her by Ms. Soria, mastering the subtleties of pianistic expression in record time. It soon became obvious that Louise was a prodigy at the piano and needed more specific guidance if her talents were to be refined any further.

To become a professional pianist, Louise studied under Ignaz Moscheles and Johann Nepomuk Hummel. So specific was her understanding of music and its composition that, in 1819 and only fifteen years of age, she was encouraged by her parents to study composition with Anton Reicha (who taught composition at the Conservatoire). At the time, Anton’s class was only open to men.

Louise’s life changed forever when she met Aristide Farrenc (a flautist ten years her senior) at a concert given at the artists’ colony of the Sorbonne, where Louise’s family lived. The pair were happily married in 1821, and Louise put her studies on hold to perform at concerts throughout France alongside her new husband. Fortunately, the traveling life of a performer did not suit Aristide, and with the help of Louise he opened Éditions Farrenc: a publishing house in Paris which became France’s leading music publisher for almost 40 years.

Having settled their life together at last, Louise resumed her composition studies with Reicha. But she longed to perform again and soon after began an illustrious concert career that ran wholly uninterrupted until 1826, when she gave birth to her daughter Victorine. Four years later, the prospects of her musical career climbed even higher and, after more than a decade of pushing herself (and the piano) to its limit, she was appointed to the permanent position of Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatory in 1842. She would hold that position for thirty years, becoming a fantastic musical educator with many of her students graduating with Premier Prix and becoming professional musicians.

Chamber music represents the majority of Farrenc’s compositional output, as she greatly enjoyed writing works for various combinations of string and wind instruments alongside the piano (the instrument she composed exclusively for during the 1820’s and 1830’s). It was during the 1840s that the bulk of her chamber music (regarded by music historians as her finest work) was written. She was also documented as having written three complete symphonies and two overtures.

As per the times in which she lived, Farrenc was paid less for commissioned works than her male counterparts. It took decades of trying to change a broken system before Louise finally came out on top at the premiere of her nonet (at which the then-famous violinist Joseph Joachim performed). Farrenc demanded and received equal pay for her outstanding musical contributions from then onward but continued to meet with resistance from patriarchal forces within the musical “elite” of Paris.

To weather the challenges posed to the advancement of her career as a composer, Louise took up her quill to produce and edit an influential book, Le Trésor des Pianistes, about early music performance style. She was awarded the Prix Chartier of the Académie des Beaux-Arts on two separate occasions, first in 1861 and then in 1869. But even the popularity of her dazzling nonet was not enough to suppress the erasure that rivals heaped upon her legacy after she passed away in 1875. Though her music was recognized by devoted fans of classical music as simply superb, Louise Farrenc’s work fell into obscurity.

Still, Farrenc was to have the last laugh (albeit posthumously). During the late 20th century, a surge of interest in women composers led to the “rediscovery”, performance, and subsequent recording of her most enduring works. Farrenc was the subject of the long-running BBC Radio Three programme “Composer of the Week” in 2013. Musicologists have since discovered a gap in her compositional output: several contemporaries of Farrenc, serving as secondary sources, maintain that Louise was a brilliant composer of opera despite never being given a libretto. A conspiracy involving an unfair blacklisting by France’s Théâtre de l’Opéra and Théâtre de l’Opéra-Comique? Perhaps… but in the end, art that is given life by genius eventually resurfaces to take its rightful place in the sun.

The SSO Chamber Ensemble perform a selection from Farrenc’s Nonet as part of our La Chambre concert.