For its opening night concert last September, when the Seattle Symphony returned for its first full season since the pandemic struck, it was music by Reena Esmail that launched the program. She continues in her role as composer-in-residence with the world premiere of a newly commissioned violin concerto for SSO’s 14th annual Celebrate Asia concert on March 20.
Also available via streaming, the concert, led by Kahchun Wong, additionally presents the U.S. premiere of “Three Muses in Video Game,” a trombone concerto by Tan Dun co-commissioned by the SSO, along with music by Toshio Hosokawa and Claude Debussy.
The phrase “highly sought-after composer” may sound like publicist hype, but it’s no exaggeration in the case of the Los Angeles-based Esmail. Her calendar for 2022 alone includes 11 world premieres of compositions that range from a solo cello piece to a major choral work commemorating 100 years of women’s suffrage.
The new violin concerto for the Celebrate Asia program belongs to this harvest of new works. Created in close collaboration with the celebrated Indian classical violinist Kala Ramnath, the concerto illustrates Esmail’s signature practice of bringing Western and Indian classical music traditions into mutually enlightening dialogue.
As part of the Celebrate Asia engagement, Esmail, 39, will also curate a program on Indian classical music with Ramnath and members of the orchestra on March 18 at 8 p.m. at SSO’s Octave 9 space. Esmail spoke about the new concerto she has created with Ramnath — and about what it means for different cultures to listen to each other. (This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
It had originally been announced as part of Thomas Dausgaard’s inaugural season that you were creating a concerto for the sitar virtuoso Guarav Mazumdar to commemorate the centenary of Ravi Shankar’s birth. After the pandemic shutdown made that impossible, how did the project morph into your collaboration with Kala Ramnath and a concerto for classical Indian violin?
I still wanted to find a way to work with an Indian musician with whom I had a close relationship. Kala Ramnath, who lives in the Bay Area, is the outstanding Hindustani violinist in the world today and has a major following in the diaspora community. She is deeply grounded in Indian classical tradition but also has a way of communicating outside it. The first time I collaborated with Kala was in 2016 to arrange music she had composed for the Kronos Quartet. To understand how the Hindustani violin works, I would watch her videos, stopping frame by frame. You can imagine how thrilled I was when Kala called and asked me to collaborate on a project involving the theme of climate change and how it can be represented in music. This then became the cornerstone of my Seattle Symphony residency.
What can we expect from the new concerto? How did you and Kala Ramnath work together to compose it?
It’s in five movements, with a little postlude, and each movement explores one of the classical Indian elements — the five elements that are used in Ayurveda medicine, for example: space, air, fire, water and earth.
Typically, I work in the way a Western composer works and come up with everything myself. In this case, a lot of the raw source material comes from Kala, and I work with these melodies in the orchestra. She would play me snippets of ideas in certain ragas [in Indian classical music, the framework in which certain types of melodies can be improvised]. We would then have conversations about how each of us was hearing a particular element in the melody — through my Western lens and through her Hindustani lens. I tried to surround what Kala plays with something that would be a Western counterpoint but that would still allow her to play and hear it in her own way.
Are the melodies Kala Ramnath provided original inventions or part of traditional ragas?
A combination of both. They clearly belong to very specific ragas that anyone who is an Indian classical musician would recognize. But the way that the melody works to represent a certain thing is her invention. For example, she uses a raga called Deepak, which is for fire — in fact, it can even be considered dangerous to sing this raga, because people are afraid that it will cause things to burn down. Kala then has the raga for water come in to neutralize the fire.
What distinguishes the Hindustani violin from its Western counterpart?
It’s essentially the same physical instrument, with a bow. But the strings are tuned much lower, so there is a bit less tension, and the instrument resonates completely differently — and is also mic’d. You’ll see Kala play it in a sitting position on the floor, holding the scroll of the violin on her knee.
What sort of audience do you both have in mind?
There is an incredibly complex tapestry of what it means to be South Asian in America right now. It includes people who have come from India as well as people like me, who grew up here but have parents from the diaspora. It’s exciting to see how all of these varied communities come together for an event like this.
I tried to make the orchestra as classical as possible, because Kala wants to be able to play the piece with other orchestras wherever she goes. And also because I’m trying in my music in general to make each set of musicians feel as comfortable as possible in what they have to do so that they’re able to focus on the collaborative aspect of listening to one another, building the space between their traditions instead of necessarily trying to cross over into them.