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Lehigh choirs rise to the challenge of new music

Lehigh University Choral Arts will perform works by three living composers this weekend, including the world premiere of a piece by a noted Indian-American composer, in concerts at the Zoellner Arts Center.

The premiere, I Rise: Women in Song, is a five-part work for women’s chorus and mezzo soprano by Reena Esmail, a 33-year-old Californian who has been at Lehigh this week as the Ronald J. Ulrich Artist-in-Residence. The work was commissioned by Choral Arts to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the founding of Dolce, a Lehigh women’s choral ensemble, and the 45th anniversary of the admission of women undergraduate students to Lehigh in 1971.

The concerts, titled “Rise Up!,” will also feature the Sunrise Mass by the 38-year-old Norwegian-born composer Ola Gjeilo, and two newly orchestrated songs by Steven Sametz, the Ronald J. Ulrich Professor of Music and Artistic Director of Lehigh Choral Arts.

Choral Arts is made up of four ensembles: the mixed University Choir and the all-male Glee Club, both student ensembles; the Choral Union, a mixed ensemble of students, faculty, staff members and residents of Bethlehem and the region; and Dolce.

The concerts will be conducted by Sametz and Sun Min Lee, the Robert Cutler Professor of Practice in Choral Arts. Both concerts begin at 8 p.m. in Baker Hall. At 7:10 each evening, Esmail will give a public lecture in Room 143 of the Zoellner Arts Center on the process of composing and on her efforts to find common ground between the musical traditions of India and those of the Western world. (See sidebar)

Sametz, who has gained world renown over the past four decades for his choral compositions, said the concerts’ devotion to contemporary composers aligns with a larger mission to make the Zoellner Arts Center a home for the creation of new music.

“Our goal is to get people excited about new music and new composers. It sends a strong message that we have three composers sharing the creative process with the singers in Choral Arts. This does not happen everywhere.

“The three artists whose works we’ll be performing represent three very different styles of composing. Gjeilo is very influenced by film music; Esmail combines elements of Indian and reinvents them in new ways for Western choirs; my music is changing over time, as many of our singers can see, so we’re waiting to see how it all turns out.”

Gjeilo, who visited Lehigh during the last week of October, has written, “A lot of [modern] art pushed audiences away for some time. I think people naturally and instinctively want to experience transcendence, resolution and the feeling of redemption, joy and peace that the resolving of discord can yield.”

A collection of Gjeilo’s choral music recorded by the Phoenix Chorale and titled Northern Lights was named iTunes Best Classical Vocal Album of 2012.

Sunrise Mass, which Gjeilo wrote in 2007, is his longest work. Its text comes from the Ordinary of the Mass and its four movements are titled Kyrie – The Spheres, Gloria – Sunrise, Credo – The City, and Sanctus and Agnus Dei – Identity and The Ground.

“Ola has an interesting idea in setting the Mass,” said Sametz. “Usually, a Mass is presented as a prayer from the individual to the Divine. Ola has conceived of this piece as the Divine coming to the individual, as in the Incarnation.”

During the performance of Sunrise Mass, Sametz said, Baker Hall will be lit, with the light changing to reflect the mood and spirit of each movement.

Esmail, a former classmate of Gjeilo’s at the Juilliard School in New York City, has won many awards for her compositions, including the Walter Hinrichsen Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and two ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Awards. In 2011-12, she received a Fulbright-Nehru grant to live in New Delhi, India, where she studied Hindustani vocal music and was affiliated with the Faculty of Music and Fine Arts at Delhi University.

I Rise: Women in Song is based on five poems by American women: The Beauty of Their Dreams by Eleanor Roosevelt, Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou, River Song by Arlene Geller, Love is Anterior to Life by Emily Dickinson, and Still I Rise by Angelou. Geller, who lives in Yardley, Pa., was commissioned by Choral Arts to write River Song for I Rise. The other poems were chosen by Lee and the texts were prepared by Lee and Esmail.

“The texts are very inspiring and empowering,” said Lee. “They enable the singers to see different aspects of women’s lives in five very different movements, each with its own message.”

Esmail describes the spirit of the five movements, from first to fifth, as “serene, jazzy, epic, ethereal and driving.

“The text really reveals what the music needs to be,” she said. “I don’t typically write in a jazzy style but the choice of the words in one of the poems by Maya Angelou led me to that specific style. When you’re setting a poem to music, you’re always following the words—their meaning as well as their onomatopoeic feeling.”

I Rise: Women in Song will be performed by the singers from Dolce, as well as the women from the Lehigh University Choir and singers from the Choral Union. The mezzo-soprano soloist for the work is Megan Durham, the Dyer Artist-in-Residence and a member of the Lehigh voice faculty.

Sametz and Lee said they reviewed the works of many composers before offering the commission to Esmail.

“Reena rose to the top of the list and she generously said yes to our request,” said Sametz. “She’s very coloristic and innovative in her approach to choral sound.”

The two songs by Sametz that will be performed are We Two Boys Together Clinging, based on a poem by Walt Whitman, and doth love exist, based on a poem by contemporary poet Dakota A. Trout.

We Two Boys, which was commissioned by Natalie Foster, professor emeritus of chemistry at Lehigh, will be performed by tenor Brett Pardue, the Sametz Artist-in-Residence and a member of the Lehigh voice faculty, and bass-baritone Mark Hightower, the Finkel Artist-in-Residence.

doth love exist, which Sametz wrote in 2012 as a Christmas gift to Trout, will be performed by the men of Lehigh University Choral Arts.

In setting a poem to music, said Sametz, “I try to find what Gerard Manley Hopkins called the ‘inscape’—the interior landscape behind the words. Poetry and music open up that world to us. Our job as composers is to illuminate that inscape, to take people beyond themselves.”

Story by Kurt Pfitzer

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Sun Min Lee, the Robert Cutler Professor of Practice in Choral Arts, guides the women of Lehigh Choral Arts through a dress rehearsal of Reena Esmail’s “I Rise: Women in Song.” (Photo by Stephanie Veto)

Sun Min Lee, the Robert Cutler Professor of Practice in Choral Arts, guides the women of Lehigh Choral Arts through a dress rehearsal of Reena Esmail’s “I Rise: Women in Song.” (Photo by Stephanie Veto)

A composer bridges cultures

Reena Esmail stands before a group of Lehigh musicians, sings a melody, and then sings it a second time to demonstrate two sharply contrasting styles of vocal music.

The melody is from I Rise: Women in Song, Esmail’s five-part work for women’s chorus that will be premiered in concerts by Lehigh University Choral Arts tonight and tomorrow night (Nov. 4 and 5) at 8 p.m. in the Zoellner Arts Center’s Baker Hall.

Moving cleanly in precise, well-defined intervals from one note to the next, Esmail first sings the phrase in a classical Western vocal style, as she wrote it in I Rise.

Then she sings the same phrase again as she first conceived it, in an Indian vocal style. Her voice takes on a nasal timbre as she fills in the intervals with sliding sounds and light glissandos, hovering over and around each note before landing on it.

Esmail was born in California and grew up speaking both English and Gujarati, the language of her grandparents, who immigrated to the United States from India. She later learned to speak Hindi. Her musical training, she tells her audience, spans Western and Indian traditions and her music aims to do the same.

Unlike most Western music genres, Esmail says, the music of India has no real counterpoint or harmony. For that reason, she says, Indian melody often takes on a richness and complexity that can suggest harmony and counterpoint.

“In Indian music,” she says, “the interval between two notes is a very fertile place. The complex relationship between harmony and melody is often embedded in that one step.”

As a result of her training in Indian music, Esmail says, “my singing voice is no longer a Western singing voice.” When she composed I Rise, she tried out melodies first in an Indian vocal style then pulled them back and reshaped them to sound more Western to reflect the fact that I Rise is based on poems by four American women: Emily Dickinson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Arlene Geller and Maya Angelou.

Esmail is informal and relaxed with her audience but she speaks with intensity, often using her hands to shape her phrases.

“I’m 33,” she starts off, “only 10 or 15 years older than most of you are. I still remember what school was like.”

As a girl, Esmail says, she studied piano. She also began composing music. At the age of 13, while attending an all-girls middle school, she finished her first full composition, a setting for women’s choir of We are the music makers by the English poet Arthur O’Shaughnessy.

For a time, Esmail thought seriously of pursuing a career as a concert pianist but found performing on stage too stressful. She was accepted to the Juilliard School to study composition after passing a strenuous audition, and she is now completing a doctorate in composition at Yale University.

In 2011-12, as a Fulbright-Nehru Scholar, Esmail lived in New Delhi and studied Indian vocal techniques and the Hindustani musical traditions of northern India. Her Ph.D. thesis at Yale is titled “Finding Common Ground: Uniting Practices in Hindustani and Western Art Musicians.”

“When you work between the genres of Indian and Western music,” she says, “you’re bringing together people who don’t really speak the same language. Unlike Western music, Indian music is a tradition that developed without any comprehensive form of notation, so it’s more improvisational than Western music, and it’s difficult to notate.”

“As a composer, in addition to creating a score, I try to create an environment where everyone can come from their own tradition and feel comfortable showing their best self to other musicians.”

Esmail has practical advice for the students in her audience. She has found that securing the rights to set a poem or literary work to music can be a lengthy process. As she composes, she spends four or five hours at a time alone with a text, singing phrases to herself, occasionally playing them on the piano.

The challenge in writing I Rise, she says, was that the women on whose poems the work is based represent different races, cultures, periods of history and literary styles. She illustrates her point by reading two lines from Maya Angelou’s poem Phenomenal Woman:

The span of my hips,
The stride of my step

…followed by a line from The Beauty of Their Dreams by Eleanor Roosevelt:

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

The Beauty of Their Dreams,” Esmail says, “is just a statement; it has no rhythm. When you set it to music, you have to look for an important word that you might want to stress by repeating it or by building a meter or stress in the melody.”

By contrast, she says, the language employed by Angelou is “very visceral” and requires a more rhythmic approach.

Music, and the inspiration for it, Esmail tells the students, can be found in a variety of venues.

In Los Angeles, where she lives, Esmail writes music for the Street Symphony and for Urban Voices Project: A Skid Row Choir, which perform music of all styles in soup kitchens, homeless shelters and prisons.

“You would be surprised,” she tells the students, “how much music is in inside people who might not have a traditional music education. There are incredible musical worlds inside all of us.”—Kurt Pfitzer