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Rhiannon Giddens’ non-traditional route to traditional song

The Silkroad Ensemble returns to Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall on Thursday, July 28, with a new program “Phoenix Rising.” Audiences can expect to once again encounter new blends of vibrant folk and classical sounds performed by an international mix of top-level artists. The lineup includes four new commissions plus several new arrangements.

Scanning the Tanglewood listing of the event, something seems missing, namely founding director Yo-Yo Ma, who in 1997 took a chance on bringing together great musicians from around the world and waiting to see what might happen. The Silk Road Project led to the Silkroad Ensemble and what is today a $5 million organization based in the Boston area. The story of this grand artistic experiment and the original assembly of musicians from the Middle East, Asia and the Americas is beautifully told in the 2016 documentary “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble,” available on several streaming services.

While the superstar cellist never severed ties with the group, he actually relinquished his leadership position back in 2017 when a triumvirate of three artists took charge. In early 2020, Giddens, 45, the American singer, instrumentalist and composer, was appointed artistic director and now Silkroad is once again being guided by a singular artist dedicated to fostering conversations between diverse musical voices. Giddens had previously appeared as a guest with the ensemble and she made her debut performance in the top post during a streaming concert that was part of Tanglewood’s 2020 summer-of-the-pandemic series Recitals from the World Stage. Besides Tanglewood, the current “Phoenix Rising” tour is hitting six other East Coast venues.

For those of us watching Silkroad from the classical side of things, Giddens may not be a familiar figure and yet she’s already made a significant mark in the field. A native of Greensboro, NC, who studied opera at Oberlin, she was founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an old-time string ensemble, now disbanded, in which she played banjo and fiddle. The group’s album “Genuine Negro Jig” won a Grammy in 2010. As a solo artist Giddens has produced four studio albums for Nonesuch. The most recent release, “They’re Calling Me Home” was recorded in Ireland during the pandemic and received the 2022 Grammy for best folk album.

“They’re Calling Me Home” and its predecessor “There Is No Other” (2019) are collaborations with Francesco Turrisi, a multi-instrumental artist who performs on, among other things, piano, accordion, string instruments and percussion. Both discs consist of an organic mix of folk material from the Mediterranean region and the African American tradition, plus a few original songs.

Giddens’ voice has a presence that’s disarming in its strength and solidity. She displays a confidence that the musical material can speak on its own terms, which means there’s no affectation in her singing of her and actually hardly any air of interpretation. At the same time, you know the sturdy voice comes from an equally sturdy soul. When she sings “I shall not be moved,” you believe her.

The material is framed by instrumental arrangements that are beautiful yet more exotic than lush. Track after track, the songs seem to be honed to their essence and yet there’s a feeling of something alchemical going on. Perhaps that’s the intangible oral lineage that’s allowed the material to survive.

Probably the most striking selection on “They’re Calling Me Home” is a wordless version of “Amazing Grace.” Here Giddens hums in a detached fashion the tones of the melody backed by Turrisi on the frame drum. By robbing the song of its familiar melodic waves and the hopeful texts, something fresh and rather unsettling is allowed to take place.

Spending time enjoying some of Giddens’ recordings helps give context to her endeavors and honors. She received a MacArthur Fellowship (the $625,000 genius award) in 2017, was featured in the Ken Bruns series on country music, and is curating a set of concerts for the upcoming season at Carnegie Hall. Industrious on a variety of platforms, she also hosts a podcast sponsored by the Metropolitan Opera (“Aria Code”), and has a new children’s book (“Build a House”).

A few years back Giddens wrote the libretto for “Omar,” an opera with a musical score that she created in collaboration with Hollywood composer Michael Abels. After a couple years of pandemic delays, it premiered at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston in May. The piece is based on the autobiography of Omar ibn Said, a Muslim scholar from Senegal who was sold into slavery. Reviews of the opera were mostly positive and they described the score as moving between American and Arabic influences.

Giddens has released as a single her own performance of “Julie’s Aria” from the new opera. The five-minute cut starts conversational in tone but quickly swells in drama and theatricality. In contrast to the muscle and restraint of her folk song interpretations, here Giddens seems more relaxed and shows a flair for storytelling. There should be ample opportunity for more appraisals of “Omar,” as it’s headed in future seasons to the San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Boston Lyric Opera.

As for her work with the Silk Road Ensemble, there’s a new initiative in the work, the American Railroad, which will explore through music the populations that either built or benefitted from the inexorable path of the locomotive. It’s to be a multi-year project that will likely bring Giddens and the Silkroad back again to Tanglewood.


Joseph dalton is a freelance writer based in Troy.

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