Celebrating AAPI Month: Spotlight on Friends in our Musical Community

May marks Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, a time to celebrate the history and rich cultural contributions of the AAPI community in the United States. Ranging from the subcontinent of India to the islands of Hawaii, the AAPI community is vast, diverse, and highly nuanced. We encourage you to explore the unique traditions of Gamelan music in Indonesia, Carnatic scales of India, the sonorous mele’s of Hawaii, and so many more traditions.

To best capture the spirit of this month’s celebration, the Pasadena Conservatory of Music is proud to shine a light on three remarkable composers – two of them local – whose work has not only told their personal story while enriching the world of music, but has also illuminated the halls of our school.

Reena Esmail

Reena Esmail, a composer of Indian and Pakistani descent, has emerged as a leading voice in contemporary classical music. Her compositions seamlessly blend Western and Hindustani classical traditions, creating a unique and captivating sonic tapestry that transcends cultural boundaries. Esmail’s music explores themes of identity, belonging, and the human experience, resonating with audiences around the globe.

Reena is based in Los Angeles and has participated in various programs here at PCM, including a lecture-performance that highlighted her work with Street Symphony and various performances with Salastina, whose east side home is Barrett Hall. Through her courageous approach, Esmail is not only enriching the classical music canon but also fostering greater understanding and appreciation of South Asian musical traditions.

Esmail is the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s 2020-2025 Swan Family Artist in Residence, and was Seattle Symphony’s 2020-21 Composer-in-Residence. She holds awards/fellowships from United States Artists, the S&R Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Kennedy Center. Her website contains more of her music and written arrangements, and can be found at www.reenaesmail.com.

Juhi Bansal

Juhi Bansal, a distinguished composer, conductor, and educator, draws from her Indian and Hong Kongese heritage to craft compositions that transcend boundaries. Her music, influenced by Hindustani melodies, spectral techniques, and progressive metal, highlights themes of strong women, wilderness, and cultural diversity. Based in LA, Juhi’s compositions have been featured in various PCM concert series like Wicked GOAT, making her a familiar presence at PCM.

Blending Eastern and Western traditions seamlessly, Bansal’s work reflects her upbringing and training, intertwining diverse musical gestures. Recent projects include “Love, Loss and Exile,” a song cycle on Afghan women’s poetry, and “Waves of Change,” a digital opera exploring womanhood and cultural conflict.

Juhi has received fellowships from the Douglas Moore Fund for American Opera, the Atlantic Music Center, Seasons Music Festival, Oregon Bach Festival Composer’s Symposium, and the Pacific Music Festival. Bansal’s dynamic presence in contemporary classical music is felt through her visionary compositions and passionate advocacy for artistic exploration. To learn more about Juhi, visit her website at www.juhibansal.com.

Yi Chen

Prominent composer Dr. Yi Chen is renowned for her fusion of Chinese and Western musical traditions. A recipient of the Ives Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2001, she serves as the Lorena Cravens/Millsap/Missouri Distinguished Professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance. With degrees from the Central Conservatory in Beijing and Columbia University, Yi’s compositions reflect her diverse training under esteemed mentors. Her music is theatrical, visceral, and multifaceted, with instrumentation ranging from solo strings to choral ensembles.

Throughout her career, Yi has held prestigious residencies and teaching positions, including Composer-in-Residence for the Women’s Philharmonic and faculty roles at institutions like Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Conservatory. She has been honored with fellowships and awards from institutions such as the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Her music, published by Theodore Presser Company, enjoys global recognition, with performances and recordings spanning over 100 records worldwide. Notable premieres include works performed by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and by pianist Zou Xiang at the China National Center for Performing Arts Concert Hall.

Ms. Chen’s profound impact on the world of music is further evidenced by her numerous honorary doctorates, awards, and recognitions, including a Pulitzer Prize Finalist nomination for her orchestral piece “Si Ji.” Her compositions, characterized by their high level simplicity and innovation, continue to inspire audiences and musicians alike. PCM’s leadership is proud to call Ms.Chen both a pioneer in contemporary music, and a friend.

As we celebrate AAPI Heritage Month, let us continue to discover the musical lineages of so many different countries in the AAPI community, and listen for their influence in the songs we listen to and enjoy today. No matter how we arrive in this country, the songs of our histories have infused themselves in the fabric of our day to day. Understanding the origins of these influences will serve to make our music more profound.