Video interviews, reviews, a TEDx Talk and more

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review of The Blue Room, San Mateo Daily Journal (September 2, 2017)

Esmail’s music is often angular, a little like Shostakovich. The soloist plays lyrical melodies over swirling sounds from the orchestra, or interjects its comments between big, jagged, dramatic blocks of sound. Partway into the second and last movement, a staccato theme builds up in the orchestra as the violin darts around it. It then breaks up into fragments that form the basis for most of the rest of the movement. This theme is so catchy that I heard someone whistling it during intermission. When’s the last time that happened at a modern music concert?

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review of Clarinet Concerto, Daily Gazette (June 4, 2017)

Reena Esmail’s Hindustani-inspired Clarinet Concerto with the estimable clarinetist Shankar Tucker, was a floral summer night with exotic perfumes coupled with a free-flowing fast movement of scales passed around from soloist to orchestra.

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A mini-documentary about my compositional process that I shot in October 2015 for the PC rebranding campaign “PC Does What

review of String Quartet, San Francisco Examiner (Feb 5, 2016)

The other world premiere was “Dadra in Raga Bhairavi.” This was actually one of Rajam’s improvisations, which was transcribed and then arranged for string quartet by Reena Esmail. Esmail showed some ingenious approaches to partitioning that solo across the four Kronos players, while Yang mimicked a tabla by tapping out the rhythms on the body of her cello and tapping the strings for a drone effect that aligned with a recorded drone, probably played on a tanpura. While the entire work was scored out, the Kronos performance still captured the spontaneity of the original improvisation.

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Profile on

Reena Esmail wants to give classical music an image makeover. Often thought of as appealing only to a certain sect of sophisticated individuals, the 32-year-old Julliard- and Yale-trained composer wants to make classical music appealing to everyone, especially young people. “I feel like I’m part of a revolution to make classical music as relevant as possible,” Esmail said. “Classical music should be accessible to anyone who wants to hear it because there are these really deep, wonderful, emotional things embedded in it—it allows you to feel things.”

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from Today’s Zaman review of SONiC Festival (October 30, 2015)

Reena Esmail’s evanescent “Tasveer” shimmered with an exotic sound tapestry for clarinet, violin, cello and piano

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review of String Quartet, Sequenza 21 (September 21, 2015):

“The Salastina Music Society presented one of the more interesting compositions of the evening, String Quartet, by Reena Esmail…The use of the western string quartet was a brilliant stroke – traditional Indian instruments can make this music sound so exotic that it can be hard for the uninitiated to absorb. Coming through the familiar lens of violins, viola and cello however, it is clearer to westerners how subtle and sophisticated this music can be.”

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Los Angeles Times coverage of the Street Symphony performance of my String Quartet in the Los Angeles County Jail (November 21, 2014):

“When Esmail sang, the inmates spontaneously joined the orchestra, clapping along, and they shot up out of their seats to cheer her encore.” – Steve Lopez, LA Times

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New Haven Independent (April 21, 2014)

“Reena Esmail’s “Gul-e-dodi” from her Anjuman Songs paid stunning tribute to Nadia Anjuman’s illustrious career, cut short when the poet was murdered by her husband in 2005… The piece, a melding of English and Anjuman’s native Farsi, was deep and beautiful, almost fragrant, as mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen met Hsuan-Fong Chen’s English Horn and Shunori Ramanathan read a translation of Anjuman’s words. Rosen has an uncanny ability to throw her voice to every corner of the room, lending to the composition a tenor that was both impossibly delicate and voluminous.”

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My talk from TEDxSkidRow 2013, about my own journey through musical identity:

“The first work presented was Teen Murti for String Orchestra by Indian composer, Reena Esmail. The haunting mystery of its opening passages evolved into pulsing rhythms from opposing sections of the strings. The exciting composition moved on to take many unexpected twists and turns, somber one moment, and full of surprising tempo changes the next.”The People’s Critic, Houston TX

An interview with the Oral History of American Music project at Yale School of Music (March 30, 2011)

review from the Santa Fe New Mexican – 8/2/13:

“On July 26, the Chamber Music Festival’s concert offered five recent string quartets played back-to-back by the intrepid FLUX Quartet. Well, the opening item, Conlon Nancarrow’s Quartet No. 3 (partly an exercise in complex metric relationships) had a little age to it, dating from 1988; but the rest were recent, and three of them were premieres of works by graduate students in composition. I found that an hour and 20 minutes of contemporary string quartets (no intermission) proved exhausting, but I did think one of the works quite interesting: 
the String Quartet by Indian-American composer Reena Esmail. A product of Juilliard and Yale, where she is pursuing her doctorate, she spent the 2011-2012 year as a Fulbright-Nehru fellow in New Delhi. In this piece, North Indian classical music melded with Western contemporary concert vocabulary in an ingratiating way. The cello often played the role of a tanpura, its extended drone providing a foundation above which the higher instruments intoned riffs rich in harmonics and flavorful augmented intervals, the keening first violin proving particularly rhapsodic. A conflict arises in that classical music of the European tradition depends greatly on harmonic variety, whereas that of North India stresses minute gradations of melody and rhythm within a more static harmonic context. Midway through its 14-minute span, Esmail’s piece did suddenly swing to a new key-area, providing very welcome harmonic relief. At that point the character changed to become a vivacious dance with complicated rhythms — a South Asian take on John Adams, perhaps — before the work concluded with a return of the opening drone-based rootedness. I would happily hear the piece again.”

– James M. Keller

interview for the 2014 Composers Now Festival:

An ad for the organization Indiaspora (art by Raghava KK, and film by Vaishali Sinha):

A video from the CULTIVATE Program at Copland House where I was a Fellow in 2012: