The new artistic director relaunches the boundary-blurring Silkroad Ensemble with a massive, multiyear history project
By Michael Andor Brodeur for The Washington Post
When folks ask Rhiannon Giddens how she plans to fill Yo-Yo Ma’s shoes as the new artistic director of Silkroad Ensemble, they get the answer that kind of question probably deserves.
“I don’t wear shoes,” she says. “So I’m not too worried.”
Since its founding by Ma in 1998, Silkroad (previously known as the Silk Road Project) has sustained twin identities as a musically polyglot touring ensemble of up to 18 international musicians, and as a powerful social impact organization with a keen focus on cross-cultural collaboration and bringing music to underserved communities.
Now, with Giddens at the helm, what could have been an identity crisis sounds like a golden opportunity. For us, too. Silkroad Ensemble comes to Wolf Trap’s Filene Center for a one-night appearance on July 24.
In 2017, Ma announced his departure from Silkroad, handing off interim director duties to a trio of its longtime players — double bassist Jeffrey Beecher, violinist Nicholas Cords and percussionist Shane Shanahan. The onset of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020 abruptly halted the ensemble’s reliably ambitious plans. But the forced break also offered an opportunity for Silkroad to reset, reconfigure and reimagine life after Ma.
“At least in the beginning, he’s going to be the elephant in the room — but he’s a beautiful elephant, the best elephant to have,” says Giddens, 45, in a phone call from her home just outside of Limerick, Ireland. “He’s not stepping away, like disappearing. He’s just stepping away far enough that we can get our own feet under us.”
This should be made a little easier by Silkroad’s acquisition last week of a $1.6 million grant award from the Alice L. Walton Foundation, “to support Silkroad’s ambitious initiatives over the next three years.” (You can get some nice proverbial shoes with that kind of money.)
Giddens, a Grammy-winning composer and multi-instrumentalist whose fiddle and banjo chops broke through as leader of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, is also something of a scholar onstage. She was awarded a MacArthur fellowship in 2017 for her work “reclaiming African American contributions to folk and country music and bringing to light new connections between music from the past and the present.”
The Drops’ landmark third studio album “Genuine Negro Jig” made Giddens’s musical missions crisp and clear, winning the 2010 Grammy for best traditional folk album — in part by undoing expectations of what that category can (and ought to) sound like. Her most recent solo album “They’re Calling Me Home” — recorded with her partner, Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi — won this year’s Grammy for best folk album. And in collaboration with composer Michael Abels, she’s recently written “Omar,” an opera that chronicles the story of an enslaved Muslim in 19th-century Charleston, S.C., and premiered there in May at Spoleto Festival.
One of Giddens’s major initiatives for Silkroad is the sprawling, multiyear “American Railroad” project, which employs the construction of the transcontinental railroad in the 19th century as a through line to explore the rich diversity at the root of American identity, and the harvest of that variety in American music.
The project, launched last year, aims to produce new commissions; a nationwide train tour beginning in 2023, with a companion documentary; a Broadway musical; and a series of books and albums for children.
“Even beyond music, who gets to say, I represent America?” Giddens asks. “Is it the fourth or fifth generation descendant of somebody who came over from Canton to work the railroads? Is it somebody who came over in the midst of World War II, fleeing the Nazis? Is it someone whose ancestor came over on the Mayflower? Is it somebody whose ancestor came on the Clotilda? Everybody has an equal shot, to me, of being the representative American story, because that’s the whole point of America.”
Under Ma’s nearly two decades of leadership, Silkroad released eight albums, including 2016′s Grammy-winning “Sing Me Home” — a project adapted into Morgan Neville’s Grammy-nominated documentary, “The Music of Strangers.”
Ma’s tenure lent Silkroad a high degree of name recognition, as well as associative proximity to the world of classical music. But the extraordinary variety of the music Silkroad brought to life onstage — its freely conversational crisscross of sonorities, tonalities and textures — couldn’t feel more removed 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 mesmerizing song cycle by Osvaldo Golijov; a powerful multimedia show based on folkloric heroes steered by Iranian sociologist Ahmad Sadri.
“One of the things we would talk about all the time [in Silkroad] is that culture can turn the other into us,” says Ma in a phone interview. “Nations don’t do that, but culture can. Music can do that.”
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Ma saw the classical footing he brought to Silkroad as “a starting point,” and classical music itself as “a form of literacy.” In Giddens, who studied opera at Oberlin Conservatory, he sees a similar capability: the ability to employ difference as a binding agent.
“She’s an original thinker, and she’s also a fantastic communicator with oodles of talent,” Ma says. “I’m now a listener, an appreciator. I want to see what new people she brings on, I want to see how organizationally it will change. 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 ensemble — and it’s not your standard firebird suite. Thirteen Silkroad artists will perform a full evening of new work, including three commissions by tabla master Sandeep Das, harpist Maeve Gilchrist and composer, flutist and taiko drummer Kaoru Watanabe. The program also features new arrangements by violinist Colin Jacobsen, bassist Edward Pérez, violinist/vocalist Mazz Swift and Giddens.
“We’ve all kind of seen what happens when you kind of slap one culture on top of another and make a thing because it sounds cool,” Giddens says. “But what’s happening in Silkroad is a real honest conversation between people who are bringing authentic connections to different cultures. And the conversation is what happens onstage. That’s the magic. And that’s what this ensemble does so well. ”
Giddens is equally invested in Silkroad’s offstage initiatives. This year’s projects include a Global Musician Workshop to be held in August at New England Conservatory; a five-month internship program for young arts professionals of color; an Arts and Passion-Driven 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 commissioning fund; and a range 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 her own taking of the reins. As globally minded as her work may be, Giddens is just excited to share space with people, make music once again and “feel all the feels.” The other stuff will take the time that big changes normally take.
“There’s grief, there’s loss, there’s this sense that we’ve all gone through something — ” Giddens says, catching herself. “That we’re all going through something. The pandemic is still here. It’s important to point that out. There’s been a lot of loss, and the flip side of that is that we’re still here. We’re coming back together. We’re picking up the pieces. And we’re not just going back to business as usual.”