In last month’s Neal’s Notes I wrote about the joy and excitement of returning to performances after a summer off.
This month it’s more joy and excitement—this time about bringing you (after a long wait) the most wonderful, most beautiful piece of music I’ve encountered in a very long time…Meri Sakhi Ki Avaaz (My Sister’s Voice) by contemporary Indian-American composer Reena Esmail.
I first heard of Reena Esmail in 2019 in a Zoom-before-it-was-actually-Zoom meeting sponsored by New Music USA, who had helped the DPAA bring Stella Sung to Dayton as our Composer-in-Residence for three seasons beginning in 2016. After “meeting” Reena at that webinar, I checked out her website, listened to some musical samples, and was blown away by what I heard. I reached out and asked her to send some scores and recordings.
One of the pieces she sent was Meri Sakhi Ki Avaaz.
Listening to it changed my life.
If we’re lucky, musicians have that experience every once in a while, when we encounter a new (or simply new-to-us) piece of music that opens new horizons, that shows us something we’d never heard before, that touches us in a new and magical way.
MKSA (the composer’s own shorthand for referring to the piece) is a 22-minute work for operatic soprano, Hindustani singer, and orchestra. It was commissioned and premiered in 2018 by the Albany Symphony Orchestra (one of the other orchestras that had composers-in-residence in 2016-2019 through New Music USA).
One of the tricks I use for judging how I think new works will go over is, admittedly a little strange. I listen to them while doing something else—straightening up my study, doing correspondence, mowing the lawn, driving around town. I know…it sounds crazy, but hear me out… I just may be, as they say, crazy like a fox. The idea is that when I listen to a piece with divided attention I’m approximating (no offense, I hope) the way that most casual listeners receive the sounds of new music in concert. If the music grabs my attention enough to distract me from the straightening, correspondence, mowing, or driving (yikes!), that means it’s likely to grab your attention as you hear the music for the first time in the Schuster Center. (If a piece passes that first distracted-listening test, of course, I go back and listen again more seriously, undistracted, following along in the score to see if my initial reaction was correct.)
Flash back to Spring 2019. Reena Esmail has sent me a bootleg recording of the Albany Symphony’s premiere performance of MKSA and I’m listening while driving around doing some errands. I don’t recall what the errands were, but I do recall that I absolutely loved what I was hearing. And I think I’ll always remember where I was when I got to the beginning of the third and final movement of the piece. I had been driving north on I-75 and was south of the Dayton Mall, having just taken the ramp onto I-675. Hearing the sound of Esmail’s two women’s voices intertwined in perfect and beautiful harmony with the orchestra was thrilling. And as I left the ramp and merged on to 675 we got to a magical moment in the piece when the Hindustani singer sings in the “solfeggio syllables” of Hindustani Classical Music (sa-re-ga-ma-pa-dha-ni) and the operatic soprano answers in the do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-si of Western Classical Music. And it’s so beautiful that as I’m driving along, tears are streaming down my face!
Needless to say, from that moment on, My Sister’s Voice was on my “Gotta Play List”.
Attentive readers of Dayton Performing Arts Alliance promotional material may recall that MSKA/MSV was originally announced for the DPO’s January 2022 Masterworks Series program titled “East Meets West”. In fact, it was the centerpiece of the program, designed to show what happens when the two great classical musical traditions of planet earth (Indian and Western) are combined—not by a Western composer imitating Hindustani music, but by a composer like Reena Esmail who authentically represents both musical traditions.
That was the plan until July 2022, when I got a dismaying e-mail from Reena. Saili Oak, our Hindustani singer (and, at the time, the one and only Hindustani singer who knew the piece) had to drop out. I didn’t know why at the time, but Saili had an excellent excuse—she had just found out she was due to have a baby right around our concert date!
Reena and I put our heads together and came up with a wonderful alternate plan for the January 2023 program: performing her beautiful Clarinet Concerto with DPO Principal Clarinet John Kurokawa as soloist. It turned out wonderfully. Another great and beautiful piece, and John absolutely knocked it out of the park. (Reena said afterwards that she never would have known from listening that John hadn’t studied traditional Hindustani music!)
And we were able to re-schedule MSKA for the Philharmonic’s October 2023 Masterworks Series program with Saili (and Sarah Tucker, star of last season’s Elixir of Love Dayton Opera production). So as the Neal’s Notes title says, “A Long Time Coming”!
But there’s another very a propos saying, too: “Good things come to those who wait!”
Even if it doesn’t make you cry, I hope you’ll enjoy hearing Reena Esmail’s Meri Sakhi Ki Avaaz as much as I’ll enjoy performing it for you!