Friday, March 9, 2018

Chicago Sinfonietta will present "Hear Me Roar," a celebration of women in classical music


In conjunction with its Project W initiative for gender equity in classical music, Chicago Sinfonietta will present "Hear Me Roar" at 3 p.m. at North Central College's Wentz Concert Hall at 171 E. Chicago Ave., Naperville, and at 7:30 p.m. March 12 at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago.

Maestro Mei-Ann Chen, who is music director of Chicago Sinfonietta, will conduct. Chicago Sinfonietta  is Chicago’s professional orchestra dedicated to modeling and promoting diversity, inclusion, and both racial and cultural equity in the arts.

The program includes new works "Dance Card," by recent Grammy winner Jennifer Higdon as well as "#MeToo" by Reena Esmail, both commissioned as part of Sinfonietta’s Project W initiative. 

Featured instrumentalists include Carol Dylan, violin; Karen Nelson, violin; Marlea Simpson, viola; and Ann Griffin, cello.

Tickets can be purchased by calling Chicago Sinfonietta at 312- 284-1554 or online at

I had the chance to talk to Esmail, who was born in Chicago, about her music.

Q – Great to talk to you. What is it like being a part of an event like this? How do you think your music fits into "Hear Me Roar"?

It is truly an honor to work with Chicago Sinfonietta and Mei-Ann Chen. In my entire career, I have worked with dozens of male conductors, but only one female orchestral conductor, and that was Mei-Ann, back in 2013 with River Oaks Chamber Orchestra.

Working with her left such an impression on me. She is an incredibly kind, generous and passionate person, and it shows in everything she does, including how she approaches the music she conducts.

It means so much to me to be able to work with her again.

Q – I understand you decided to retitle your composition #MeToo. Why did you decide to retitle it and how do you think it fits into the Me Too movement?

I was writing this piece during the time the #MeToo movement was unfolding. #MeToo bears the title of the social movement that has been exploding across our country during the time I was writing this piece. The movement, created 10 years ago by Tarana Burke as a way to create safe spaces for young women of color, has grown into a movement that has allowed so many women to speak out, contextualize one another’s experiences, and begin to heal.

As a woman composer, I always get asked why there aren’t more women composers. This piece is one response — of many hundreds of responses — to that question. So many of us decide to become composers when we are young women because we fall deeply in love with individual pieces of music.

We listen to them incessantly, we memorize every note of them, we live our lives through the lens of that music. And then at some point, for some of us, as we engage with that music, something devastating happens to us — often by the very person who has introduced us to that music.

We hate ourselves, we blame ourselves, we bury it deep within our psyche — until we hear that piece of music again. It could be at a concert, it could be in a theory class, it could be on the radio. We are powerless to fend off that tidal wave of sensory memory. The very music we once loved becomes a trigger that slowly destroys our love for our art. 

Of course I’m speaking about myself, but I’m also speaking about so many other women I know. That experience is what this piece is about.

I was so filled with rage while I was writing this work. The rage of seeing the injustices that plagued even the strongest, most powerful women among us, the rage of having to relive the worst moments of my own life over and over again, every time I checked facebook or turned on the news.

The rage that as women, some of the strongest bonds we share are forged from the most devastating and corrosive experiences.

Lest this seem like a war cry, I want to say this: I have never known of a truly happy, fulfilled man that has sexually abused a woman. The outcries of #metoo are a symptom of issues that are affecting men. Women are the bystanders who get caught in the crossfire. 

Every day, even as my rage simmers, I have to ask: what is the endgame here? What does a healthy society look like? And how can we put systems in place that truly allow men to address these underlying issues, so that we can create stronger bonds with one another, and build stronger communities with higher standards of accountability to each other?

I look forward to imagining and creating that world together.

Q – Are you familiar with any of the artists or works that will be featured as part of the event? How do you think your work stands beside theirs?

Jennifer Higdon has been an inspiration to me for as long as I've been a composer. I remember over a decade ago, when I had graduated from my undergraduate degree and I was so creatively lost – I kept wondering if I really had what it took to be a composer.

I found this amazing interview in "New Music Box" with Jennifer, where she said that she composed six hours a day, every day. And that instantly snapped me out of my ennui – I realized that it wasn't as much about having raw talent or unequivocally great ideas, or having encouragement or people to believe you could do it.

It was about investing the time to see what I did have to offer, and then working from there. I would literally think to myself, "Jennifer Higdon is composing for six hours today! What the heck are YOU doing?"
It helped a LOT. I'm here today because I began to take my creative practice as seriously as Jennifer takes hers.

Of course, the amount of time and careful attention she has invested in her music over the years is so obvious. There is just this seamless perfection about everything she writes. I am completely floored by how incredible, how intricate, how fresh, how innovative and how soulful her music is. 

I never imagined, back when I was reading that interview that I would ever have the opportunity to share the stage with her in this way. It means everything to me. 

Q – What would you like people to get out of the event? What would you like people to get out of your music in general?

Everyone has such a different experience listening to music, and that is the beauty of music. I hope that my music resonates with my listeners, and that it stirs something in them. 

I love hearing what my listeners are thinking and feeling, and I love knowing if my music meant something to them.

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