Reena Esmail recognized the irony that we were talking about her new choral work: “Requiem for Water” inspired by the California water crisis, in the midst of a deluge. He was wearing wellington boots, as were many members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, at an evening rehearsal earlier this week at a Glendale church, where dozens of dripping umbrellas leaned against the walls.
But, he noted with a smile, the official title of his piece is “Malhaar,” which is the name of a subset of ragas, a form of Indian classical music, “which are supposed to bring rain. So in the Sunni tradition,” Esmail said, “the tradition says that when you sing malhaar, the rain comes.”
An Angelina who studied Western classical music at both Juilliard and Yale, the composer is also the daughter of Indian immigrants and, for the past decade, has been conjuring up a musical river that feeds from two disparate cultures.
Their work is a cross-traditional duet, where classically notated chamber and orchestral ensembles dance to improvised microtonal Hindustani voices, sitars and violins. In his 2016 oratorio, “This Love Among Us,” Esmail realized that the tabla (Indian hand drum) player was having trouble following the western conductor, so he paired him with a timpanist in the orchestra.
These two percussionists “developed this very close and beautiful bond with each other,” Esmail said. “And I thought: Wow, this is amazing, because they have to depend on each other. I’ve created this piece where the dependency is really needed so they both know where they are in the structure.”
In 2020, Master Chorale named Esmail as their artist-in-residence, and for his first commission, he was inspired by that previous experience to attempt to pair a Hindustani vocalist, Saili Oak, with these Los Angeles singers, whom he strove to recruit. . know during the pandemic.
Esmail took up residency that July, in the early COVID-19 mess, and “I knew when I took this commission that, by 2023, we would have to cry something. I felt a requiem needed to happen.”
The result is “Malhaar,” which will premiere Sunday in a program featuring Fauré’s Requiem in D minor at Walt Disney Concert Hall, rain or shine. Esmail’s piece will be accompanied by striking projection designs by Camilla Tassi, dotted throughout the room.
The work calls upon many of the tributaries of Esmail’s life and creative journey. His mother is Catholic and from Goa, and his father is a Muslim from Punjab; the Latin mass is as significant to Esmail as his more recent studies in Hindustani singing with Oak, a voice teacher originally from Mumbai.
Esmail and Oak are interested in the confluence between Indian classical music and Western classical music, and Esmail began to tinker with the Hindustani vocal tradition of alap, which is “so beautiful and so complex,” Esmail said.
“I thought to myself: Wouldn’t it be amazing if there were two words, one in Hindi and one in another language, and they were connected by their vowels?” she said. “So we came up with this idea of doing an ‘Agnus Dei,’ and that she would start with the Hindi term ‘He kartar,’ and in that ‘ah,’ she would become ‘Agnus Dei’ in the chorus.”
“Malhaar” is modeled after the Requiem Mass and includes a “Kyrie eleison” and a “Requiem aeternam,” though Esmail intentionally chose the parts of the traditional Mass “that I feel are a bit more universal and not necessarily specifically Christian. There is a message there that appeals to everyone. I mean, everyone loses someone and they need to find a way to honor that.”
The piece is heavily inspired by the poetry of William O’Daly, who is a native of the San Fernando Valley and is also the lead writer for the California Water Plan. The fourth movement is set to a poem by O’Daly which asks: “Is this ever-falling water human tears? Don’t they mean anything? … Without you, how can we cry when we need it? – which fits perfectly with the ancient words of the “Lacrimosa”: “Full of tears will be that day.”
Backed rhythmically by a tabla, Oak’s Hindustani song glides in and around the California chorale as it flows and surges into English and Latin. The piece culminates in a dream about a waterfall, with all these seemingly disparate influences cascading into one hopeful unity.
“In a way,” Esmail said, “I almost feel like I’m finding musical cognates. Sometimes those cognates mean one thing in a certain culture and mean something else in another culture or language. And you can use those cognates to create this glue that allows people to understand each other, perhaps without even realizing that they are understanding each other.”
‘Email / Fauré’
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
When: 7:00 p.m. Sunday, March 26