Now, with Giddens at the helm, what could have been an identity crisis looks like a golden opportunity. For us, too. Silkroad Ensemble is coming to Wolf Trap’s Filene Center for a one night appearance on July 24th.
Toast to classical music under the stars
In 2017, Ma announced his departure from Silkroad, handing over the duties of interim manager to a trio of his longtime players – double bassist Jeffrey Beecher, violinist Nicholas Cords and percussionist Shane Shanahan. The onset of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020 abruptly interrupted the ambitious and reliable plans of the set. But the forced hiatus also presented Silkroad with an opportunity to reset, reconfigure and reinvent life after Ma.
“At least at first he’ll be the elephant in the room – but he’s a beautiful elephant, the best elephant to have,” Giddens, 45, said in a phone call from his house just outside outside of Limerick, Ireland. “He doesn’t walk away, like vanish. It pulls away just enough for us to get our feet under us.
That should be made a bit easier by Silkroad’s acquisition last week of a $1.6 million grant from the Alice L. Walton Foundation, “to support Silkroad’s ambitious initiatives over the next three years.” (You can get proverbial beautiful shoes for that kind of money.)
Giddens, a Grammy-winning composer and multi-instrumentalist whose fiddle and banjo chops broke through as the frontman of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, is also a scholar on stage. She received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2017 for her work “recovering African-American contributions to folk and country music and bringing to light new connections between music of the past and present.”
The Drops’ landmark third studio album, “Genuine Negro Jig,” made Giddens’ musical missions crisp and clear, winning the 2010 Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album – in part by quashing expectations of what this category can (and should ) look like. His latest solo album “They’re Calling Me Home” – recorded with his partner, Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi – won this year’s Grammy for Best Folk Album. And in collaboration with composer Michael Abels, she recently wrote “Omar,” an opera that tells the story of an enslaved Muslim in 19th-century Charleston, South Carolina, which premiered in May at Spoleto Festival.
One of Giddens’ major initiatives for Silkroad is the large, multi-year “American Railroad” project, which uses the construction of the transcontinental railroad in the 19th century as a direct line to explore the rich diversity that forms the basis of American identity and harvest of this variety in American music.
The project, launched last year, aims to produce new orders; a national train tour starting in 2023, with an accompanying documentary; a Broadway musical; and a series of children’s books and albums.
“Even beyond the music, who’s to say, I represent America?” asks Giddens. “Is he the fourth or fifth generation descendant of someone who came from Canton to work on the railways? Is it someone who came in the middle of World War II, fleeing the Nazis? Is it someone whose ancestor came on the Mayflower? Is it someone whose ancestor came to Clotilde? Everyone has an equal chance, for me, to be representative of American history, because that’s what America is all about.
Under Ma’s nearly two-decade stewardship, Silkroad has released eight albums, including 2016’s Grammy-winning “Sing Me Home,” a project adapted from Morgan Neville’s Grammy-nominated documentary, “The Music of strangers”.
Ma’s tenure has given Silkroad a high degree of name recognition, as well as an associative closeness to the classical music world. But the extraordinary variety of music Silkroad has brought to life on stage — its freely conversational interweaving of sounds, tones, and textures — couldn’t be further from the cellist’s usual context in the concert hall: a collaboration with Mark Morris Dance Group based on a 7th century Persian Love Tale; a spellbinding song cycle by Osvaldo Golijov; a powerful multimedia spectacle based on folk heroes directed by Iranian sociologist Ahmad Sadri.
“One of the things we used to talk about all the time [in Silkroad] is that culture can transform the other into weMa said in a phone interview. “Nations don’t do that, but culture can. Music can do that.
Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax and Leonidas Kavakos are here to give Beethoven the power-trio treatment
Ma saw the classical foundation he brought to Silkroad as “a starting point” and classical music itself as “a form of literacy”. In Giddens, who studied opera at the Oberlin Conservatory, he sees a similar ability: the ability to use difference as a connecting agent.
“She’s an out-of-the-box thinker, and she’s also a fantastic communicator with a lot of talent,” Ma says. “I’m now a listener, an appreciator. I want to see what new people she brings in, I want to see how it will change organizationally. I’m really curious! I’m a fan.”
“Phoenix Rising,” which Giddens brings to Wolf Trap, is the first of many grand visions she has for the set – and it’s not your standard Firebird sequel. Thirteen Silkroad artists will perform a full evening of new work, including three commissions from tabla master Sandeep Das, harpist Maeve Gilchrist and composer, flautist and taiko drummer Kaoru Watanabe. The program also includes new arrangements by violinist Colin Jacobsen, bassist Edward Pérez, violinist/vocalist Mazz Swift and Giddens.
“We’ve all seen what happens when you put one culture on top of another and do something because it sounds good,” Giddens says. “But what happens at Silkroad is real, honest conversation between people who bring genuine connections to different cultures. And the conversation is what happens on stage. That’s the magic. And that’s what this set does so well.”
Giddens is also invested in Silkroad’s off-stage initiatives. This year’s projects include a Global Musician Workshop to be held in August at the New England Conservatory; a five-month internship program for young arts professionals of color; an arts-based and passion-based learning institute for K-12 educators; Silkroad Connect, a collaborative partnership between the Kennedy Center’s Turnaround Arts program and middle schools across the country; an artist development and commission fund; and a series of artist response projects launched during the pandemic.
The pandemic plays a big part in what makes Silkroad’s return to the stage more meaningful to Giddens than his own takeover. As globally minded as her work may be, Giddens is simply thrilled to share space with people, make music again, and “feel all the thrills.” Other things will take the time that big changes normally take.
“There’s grief, there’s loss, there’s this feeling that we’ve all been through something -” Giddens says, catching himself. “That we all are Go through something. The pandemic is still there. It is important to underline this. There have been a lot of losses, and the other side of the coin is that we are still here. We come back together. We pick up the pieces. And we’re not just going back to business as usual.
Rhiannon Giddens and Silkroad Ensemble perform “Phoenix Rising” at the Filene Center at Wolf Trap on July 24. wolftrap.org.