Jamming with Juilliard415
Classical music and Hindustani come together this weekend. And how. As a part of their first India tour, Juilliard415, a period-instrument ensemble from the famed school of music in New York and Yale Schola Cantorum, a chamber choir that performs sacred music from the 16th century is stopping by in Chennai. Now imagine this esteemed American group of choristers singing in Malayalam, Hindi and Arabic! Brought down by Classical Movements, the ensembles will perform compositions like Bach’s glorious Magnificat and an evocative dance suite by French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau, apart from a host performance by the Madras Musical Association.
Conductor David Hill gives us the pre-concert tour:
Bach and lyrics in Arabic? Curiosity is a mild word choice at this point.
Yes, the concert is in two very different halves. The opening Rameau shows the virtuosity of the Juilliard players from one of the most colourful composers of the 18th century, followed by one of the great choral and orchestral works from JS Bach, a setting of the Magnificat, which in its own way displays the virtuosity of all the players as well as singers on stage.
The second half brings us to the 21st century, and a work, Prayers for Unity, by the Indian-American composer Reena Esmail. Its uniqueness is a combination of the orchestra on period instruments alongside singers, soloists, sitar, and tabla, and in seven different Indian languages. It is a commission from the Yale Institute of Sacred Music.
What are your thoughts on Western classical music blended with Hindustani influences?
This is a new venture for me, and I believe in my colleagues, yet it is something from which Reena is making a following. We’ve had enormous pleasure combining these very different sound worlds.
Have you observed a revival trend with classical music recently?
Unquestionably, more people wish to hear Bach and other Early Music in a way that period instruments can provide, and in a style in which they were played. In that sense, this is an increasingly important aspect of the classical music world.
What kind of preparation goes into making a tour like this one?
It was a very thorough process undertaken by trainers at both Yale and Juilliard, combining rehearsals for two concerts in New York and New Haven several weeks ago. Reena’s musical language allowed the singers and players to identify with her style quickly.
While in India, what are you looking forward to experiencing off-stage?
This is my first time in India, and as a devotee of Indian food, eating the real thing has proved to me a wonderful experience. The warmth of the hospitality has been overwhelming and the whole experience of touring allows us to better know each other as musicians and people.
What’s on your playlist?
Die Walküre by Richard Wagner.
One composition that would make a good initiation for newbies to classical music.
Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
Why is it called the Julliard415?
The group plays at Baroque pitch, which is a=415; modern pitch is a=440.
What do you do to calm your nerves before a major concert?
I sit down and go to my own space, and often speak to my family beforehand.
One pop tune that you find yourself humming in the shower.
Sting’s Englishman in New York.
Bieber or Beyoncé?
Juilliard415, Yale Schola Cantorum and the Madras Musical Association will perform on March 19 at the Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao Concert Hall, 7 pm. Tickets: Rs 499 and Rs 750
Other performances will also be held on March 18 at the Government Museum Theatre (Juilliard415 only) and on March 19 at St Mary’s Church (Yale Schola Cantorum only). Entry free.Reservations
Indian-American composer Reena Esmail on the world premiere of This Love Between Us: Prayers for Unity that juxtaposes words of religions from Zoroastrianism to Islam and creating a classical Opera interwoven with Hindustani influences.
Prayers for Unity
I’ve taken all these different religions and we have singers performing in seven different languages. Imagine hearing a phrase like, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour and thyself’, sung in Malayalam from someone who has come half way around to world to sing it for you in beautiful diction. It’s a 40-minute piece and I had to consult 22 people — ranging from gurus to religious scholars because I wanted to represent the culture authentically.
Hindustani in an Opera?
In the next couple of years, I am looking to write an Opera. And yes, I want to weave in Hindustani elements that I have trained for years to learn about. I have been asked about other forms of Indian music as well, in fact one of the first teachers I met was a Carnatic teacher. But I don’t like to dabble, and only write what I know. I care deeply that I will be able to stand behind every single note that I write.
Bhajans and a string quartet
For me, the inspiration with Hindustani music almost comes ‘because’ I am so far away. And I get to teach people something authentic about my culture. Like there are a lot of times when there might be a string quartet playing and I just sing alongside with a straight bhajan. Also, I’ve co-founded an organisation called Shastra that supports musicians who do Indo-Western crossovers. So we’re trying to build that bridge and create a community of people who work between the two genres.