Pieces

Reena Esmail - Meri Sakhi Ki Avaaz (My Sister's Voice)
Program Notes

REENA ESMAIL (born 1983)

MERI SAKHI KI AVAAZ (My Sister’s Voice)

COMPOSED: 2018

PREMIERED: Albany, NY, June 2018

Although born in Chicago, Reena Esmail is a quintessentially Indian composer whose music seeks to combine, confront and reconcile the essentially European tradition of Western classical music with its Hindustani counterpart – a tradition that is at least as old but is comparatively unknown in the West. Until the Beatles met Ravi Shankar, there was scarcely any real attempt at an Indo-European musical merger, with the intriguing exception of Gustav Holst (another of our composers this evening). Esmail has done for Indian music what Takemitsu did for the music of Japan.

The composer has written a helpful and enlightening note on the work:

Meri Sakhi Ki Avaaz, at its core, is a piece about sisterhood. Each movement’s short text epitomizes the one of the many facets of having and being a sister. It is also about what sisterhood looks like when expanded beyond a single family or a single culture— when two women, from two different musical cultures create space for one another’s voices to be heard.

The first movement is a modern take on Delibes’s famous Flower Duet from the opera Lakme. In the opera, Delibes depicts two Indian women singing by a river. In 1880s France, this orientalism was a point of entry into another culture far away. But today, that culture is easily accessible, and this is my attempt to show you what an ‘updated’ version of this duet might sound like with a Hindustani singer actually present to represent herself. So much of Western art music is about creating dialogue between the old and new, responding to our vast canon and musical tradition. And for the work I do, I couldn’t think of a better jumping-off point than this classic duet.

For the second movement, I wrote a classical Hindustani bandish or ‘fixed composition’ in what they call ati-vilambit— a tempo that is so slow that the western metronome doesn’t even have a setting for it. While Hindustani musicians would normally stay in one key for an entire piece (and, to be honest, for their entire professional career), this movement modulates once every avartan, or rhythmic cycle, and also allows space for improvisation within a very rigid western orchestral structure. Additionally, the singers are singing in two different raags — the Hindustani singer is in Charukeshi, while the soprano is in Vachaspati – and as the movement goes on, the switches between the raags get closer and closer.

The third movement is about mirrors and opposites. I used two different raags that are actual mirror images of one another: Bhup, a light and sweet raag, and Malkauns, a dark, heavy raag. You will hear the shifts in tonality as the phrases cross from one into the other. Also embedded in this piece is a classic Hindustani jugalbandi (a musical competition) that is done completely in mirror image, and with both Indian and Western solfege systems, and it ends with both women crossing into one another’s musical cultures: the Hindustani singer begins singing phrases in English and the soprano joins in for ataranain harmony.

This piece has been almost a decade in the making. In 2009, I wrote a piece called Aria, for Hindustani vocalist and orchestra – it was the first time I had ever attempted to put a Hindustani musician in my work, and it was the beginning of a long journey of discovery between these two musical cultures. This piece is the result of what I’ve found along that journey — an encyclopedia of sorts, of the many points of resonance I’ve discovered between these musical cultures. One of the greatest things I’ve learned is that I cannot do it alone. These ideas are as much mine as they are Saili’s. We have spent hours and hours over many summers sitting at my kitchen table, drinking chai and dreaming up the ideas that have become this piece. And as Saili is quick to point out: this is a culmination, but also a beginning of everything that is yet to come. I might be a biological only-child, but I have found my musical soul sister in Saili.

Gustav Holst - The Planets
Program Notes

GUSTAV HOLST (1874-1934)

THE PLANETS

COMPOSED: 1914-1917

PREMIERED: London, England, September 1918

Despite his German-Swedish name (he was born von Holst), Gustav Holst was as English as his close friend Vaughan Williams, and a leader in the English folksong revival. The Planets is by far his best known work, so much so that it has largely eclipsed his other music and his astonishingly wide influence. He taught at Harvard in 1931; his students included the young Elliott Carter. It was only the disease that eventually killed him that prevented him from staying longer and adding another layer to his already complex nationality.

Holst was deeply interested in Indian culture – so much so that he taught himself Sanskrit and made his own translations of Vedic texts to set to music. Those texts led him to astrology, which in turn led to The Planets. The movements (and their names) evoke the astrological “meaning” of each planet, not of the gods whose names they bear. Only the regal, Elgarian middle section of Jupiter allows for Jupiter being King of the Gods. There is no Pluto (only discovered in 1930) – and, perhaps strangely, no Earth. The order of planets in the work is roughly the order they were written in, except that Mercury was written last.

Mars is the ultimate musical evocation of war and destruction, set in an unsettling 5/4 with a threatening, hammering rhythmic figure that has been “borrowed” for countless movie scores. Hans Zimmer learned the hard way that Mars was still in copyright in 2006 when he “repurposed” it for Gladiator. When Vaughan Williams first saw the piece, he encouraged Holst to add “more row!!” – which he obviously did.

Venus is easily the most emotionally delicate music that Holst ever wrote, even creeping towards the Romanticism that he spent his life trying to avoid. This is Holst’s personal concept of Heaven.

Mercury is the reason that The Planets is often called a seven-movement Concerto for Orchestra, with alarming virtuoso writing, especially for woodwind, that would have given Ravel pause. Note the message-boy’s tinkling bell!

Jupiter gives us a strangely pan-English Zeus, with a bustling opening that points directly to Walton and a central “Trio” that could have come from a Pomp and Circumstance March if only it were not in 3-4 time. Holst fiercely resented its use as a super-patriotic hymn – I Vow to Thee, My Country. Saturn grafts Debussy’s harmony onto near-Bartókian obsession before phasing into a soaring Vaughan Williams-ish image of a strangely empty Beyond – the Nirvana to Venus’s Heaven.

Uranus is not just a magician, but a mountebank evoked with jarring atonal brass figures that could well have been a poke at Schoenberg, who was forging into the atonal wilderness in 1918. But the stillness of the closing passage suggests that there is an actual nowhere for it all to lead.

Neptune is Debussy – even Scriabine - but not quite; either would have been alarming in 1918’s London. The endlessly curling woodwind figures that Holst derived from Middle Eastern music lead to a receding loop of repeating chords (scored for offstage female chorus) that do resolve, but somehow never end – quite literally the Infinite.

Ralph Vaughan Williams - Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
Program Notes

RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)

FANTASIA ON A THEME OF THOMAS TALLIS

COMPOSED: 1910

PREMIERED: Gloucester, England, September 1910

It seems incredible now that anyone could ever have found this wonderful work “too modern,” but it happened. Just as these concerts often open with a scary modern work prefacing a less intimidating piece, the Tallis Fantasia was the opener for the first performance of Elgar’s far more traditional oratorio The Dream of Gerontius. Some listeners were appalled by what they thought was the wicked foreign shadow of Debussy falling on Gloucester Cathedral; that shadow now takes some finding in this most English of orchestral works.

Ironically, the “Debussy-ish” harmony that upset the original audience so much is taken directly from the Tallis hymn the work is based on. Those who don’t know the original Tallis would be surprised by it. Vaughan Williams takes this astonishingly audacious little hymn and stretches it out using techniques learned from the string Fantasias of Tallis’s younger contemporaries – especially his student, William Byrd. Phrases from the hymn are tossed about between the string quartet and the two string orchestras; the hymn’s chords freeze into the widely-spaced wall of string sound that opens the work. The Gregorian Phrygian mode reigns supreme. The music is, in fact, so old that it sounds new. Despite the work’s huge success, Vaughan Williams would never go so far in this direction again.

About the Concert

Holst's thrill ride through the solar system is actually a series of tone poems about war and peace, love and joy, and life and death. In "My Sister's Voice," a Hindustani singer and a Western soprano join together in a ravishingly beautiful story of crossing cultures. First, Vaughan Williams' work inspired by English Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis features the lush sound of the Columbia Orchestra strings.

This concert is sponsored by the family of Bob Russell in his memory.

Please note: Masks are required to be worn at all times, regardless of vaccination status. Patrons will be required to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test result obtained within 72 hours of the concert. All musicians, guest artists, staff, and volunteers are fully vaccinated. There will be no concessions or post-concert reception at this concert. Click here for more information.

Virtual ticket holders will receive an email with a link to watch the concert approximately one week after the concert.

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