The Yale Schola Cantorum (Schola) is a renowned chamber choir that performs sacred music from the sixteenth century to the present day in concert settings and choral services around the world. Schola has a special interest in historically informed performance practice, often in collaboration with instrumentalists from Yale School of Music and Juilliard 415 (Juilliard School’s principal period-instrument ensemble).
In addition to performing regularly in New Haven (Connecticut) and New York, where Yale and Juilliard are situated respectively, the ensemble records and tours nationally and internationally. On tour, Schola has given performances in England, Hungary, France, China, South Korea, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Japan and Singapore among other nations.
The ensemble is now all set to tour India this month. “It’s exciting to be coming to India, where traditions – both musical and cultural – are completely different. We’re looking forward to experiencing India with all our senses, and also to be able to bring a different musical experience to audiences here,” says Reena Esmail, a graduate of both Yale and Juilliard. Schola’s principal conductor David Hill will lead performances of the choir.
The audience will also hear a fine orchestra of period instruments from Juilliard, and well-known sitarist Rabindra Goswami and tablaist Ramchandra Pandit. Also in store is a premiere of a newly-commissioned work by Esmail. Esmail’s work embraces both Western and Hindustani (North Indian) classical music idioms.
In 2011-2012, she was a recipient of a Fulbright-Nehru grant, and moved to Delhi, where she was affiliated with the Faculty of Music and Fine Arts at Delhi University and studied Hindustani vocal music. Esmail was selected as a 2011 INK Fellow to speak about her work at the INK Conference (in association with TED) in Jaipur, and throughout India.
Entitled This Love Between Us: Prayers for Unity, and scored for baroque orchestra, choir, sitar, and tabla, the new piece explores the themes of unity, brotherhood, and kindness by juxtaposing religious texts from seven major communities of India (Buddhism, Sikhism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Jainism, Hinduism, and Islam), sung in eight languages.
“Each movement contains a unique combination of Indian and Western styles, and each of the musicians is asked to keep one hand firmly rooted in their own tradition and training, while reaching the other hand outward to greet another musical culture. I wrote This Love Between Us through some of the darkest times in our country and in our world. But my mind always returns to the last line of this piece, the words of noted poet Rumi — Concentrate on the essence, concentrate on the light.”
After touring Delhi and Mumbai, the choir will perform in Chennai. The Juilliard instrumentalists will perform separately on March 18 at the Government Museum Theater at 7 pm. Before the Schola takes the stage at the Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao Concert Hall on March 19, they will participate in the Sunday morning service at St Mary’s Church.
The church, the oldest Anglican church east of the Suez and the oldest British building in India, has special significance for Yale. Here, in 1680, Elihu Yale married Catherine Hynmer, the first marriage to be performed in the church.
Yale, a vestryman and treasurer of the church, was an American-born British merchant with the East India Company who arrived in India in 1672 and after a series of promotions served from 1687 to 1692 as its Governor at Fort St. George. He returned to England in 1699, and in 1718 donated 417 books, a portrait of King George I, and goods worth £800 to the Collegiate School of Connecticut, which was then renamed in his honour.
In 1968, in commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the naming of Yale College, the classmates of Chester Bowles ’24, the American ambassador to India, donated to the church for “lasting improvements” and erected a plaque in the sanctuary. There is also a silver alms dish in the church inscribed by Yale, given in 1687.
Speaking of Yale and the 1960s, how relevant are the performances in today’s context and do they strike a chord with contemporary tastes? “Schola performs art music from all periods; its aesthetic is one of excellence in all it does. They often perform works from long ago – and some of those works are new in the sense that they are not often performed, or have been rediscovered.
There is also a commitment to performing works by living composers in different styles. This diversity of programming and contrast of old with new makes audiences return to hear both familiar masterworks of the Western tradition, and new serious music of that tradition, as well as occasional explorations of other traditions,” finishes Esmail.