A week ago I attended the Chicago Sinfonietta’s most recent concert at Symphony Center, a program entitled Sea of Light timed to coincide with Diwali, the 5 day Hindu celebration of the triumph of light over darkness, of knowledge over ignorance. In Hindu cultures, Diwali is a time for reflection, celebration, family, and starting fresh. The Sinfonietta used it as an occasion to further its pursuit of the diversity of the music a classical symphony can produce with the help of others.
The program included a work by young Indian-American composer Reena Esmail that is as beautiful as it is difficult to play – both Mei-Ann Chen, the longtime Sinfonietta conductor, and Teacher, who often plays with the ensemble, said so. The challenging piece, entitled Teen Murti, is comprised of three raags, which might be thought of as movements in this context, but they are a system of melodic structures on which Indian music is based. The title means “three statues” and was inspired by a statue the composer encountered in New Delhi.
The second piece, Celebration, was written for sitar and orchestra by the man who played it in the concert – Gaurav Mazumdar. I had never heard a sitar played live before, and its presence in the lineup was one of the major reasons I was excited about the show. The fretted instrument has 5 or 6 plucked strings, and then a dozen or so more which resonate when notes on the plucked strings are intoned, producing the famous polyphony of the instrument. Mazumdar’s playing was mesmerizing and magnificent, though the work’s arrangement for orchestra was lackluster. The sitar was the star, and that was fine with me and the rest of the audience. Like Teen Murti, Celebration is a journey through three raags, which, in turn, commemorate birth and hope, middle age and challenges, and then the final stage of life – reveling in accomplishments and contemplating the next journey.
The program blended east and west, and after Intermission the orchestra performed an originally chorale piece arranged for orchestra by the contemporary composer Eric Whitacre, Lux Aurumque. Whitacre is an accomplished artist, and this piece was the first of his compositions created for virtual choir, that is, individuals singing parts into webcams and submitting them for compilation into a master track. The effect of the video compilation is stunning, and an interesting commentary on our technologically complicated time. The words, an Edward Esch poem translated into Latin (for what purpose I’m not entirely sure) for Whitacre’s piece, are:
warm and heavy as pure gold
and angels sing softly
to the new-born babe
Debussy’s canonical La Mer rounded out the night. Prior to lifting her baton, Chen said that she cannot conceive of water without the presence of light and encouraged us to visualize colorful splashes of light reflecting on the swells of the Mediterranean as she conducted Debussy’s romantic masterpiece.
The Chicago Sinfonietta is one of our town’s jewels. In this cultural moment especially, it was touching to read a letter included in the program written by the 35-year-old composer of the first piece, Reena Esmail. Her heartfelt letter is addressed to American immigrant parents to whom “the unthinkable has already happened,” their children, for whom they have sacrificed so much, have decided to pursue a career in the arts. Esmail is writing with firsthand knowledge of familial pressures to pursue lucrative, well-respected career paths. To them, she says, “As you worked tirelessly, day after day, over decades, your child was watching you closely, learning from your every move. They saw you struggle, and then, over time, they saw you surmount each obstacle with dogged determination.” She continues, offering up the position that a career in the arts is just like that, not easy, but extremely fulfilling.
I hope as many artist-children as possible ultimately find the success of Reena Esmail.
Thanks for reading.