Rhiannon Giddens at Carnegie Hall

Calling Us Home

By: - Jan 30, 2023

Rhiannon Giddens, Banjo, Viola, and Vocals
Francesco Turrisi, Percussion, Accordion, Cello Banjo, and Piano
Jason Sypher, Bass

Rhiannon Giddens talks often of being comfortable in the crossroads of her art. The new configuration of Zankel Hall in Carnegie looks like a crossroads. The audience comes from every direction to focus on the world being presented. The stage is a hybrid space where different music from different times can exist side by side.

“They are calling me home” is the theme of the music performed by Rhiannon Giddens and her partner in music and in life, Francesco Turisi. Audience seating hugs the performers on stage. Giddens, Turisi and bassist Jason Sypher are comfortable here, and safe in the embrace of Carnegie, whose acoustics and management give opportunities to greatly talented musicians.  Giddens acknowledges this.

‘Home’ is also a phrase from “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” referring to laments which are part of dying, and going home. Feeling dark experiences through song, Giddenas says, leaves you lighter. She has explored the history of song in the south and is today's Alan Lomax.

Both Giddens and Turisi are versatile performers.  Giddens, trained as an opera singer, lofts her voice beautifully over an astonishingly wide range. Notes she takes to the back of her throat sound a bit like her banjo, which carries its own message. First made and played in Africa, it came to America as part of the slave trade and is a uniquely African American instrument. Giddens and her banjo both twang.

While Giddens messages that "there are no 'others' " and that inclusion is critical, she also speaks as the Black person she is. Like bel canto tenor Lawrence Brownlee, she transmits the pain of Black history in this country with stunning clarity and intimacy. Those of us who are concerned about the remembrance of this history and its incorporation into our daily thoughts in order to prevent recurrences, welcome the presentations of artists like Giddens and Brownlee.  Giddens' song about a black woman being auctioned off, with or without her nine-month-old baby, makes an indelible point.

The entire evening exudes the mix of pleasure and pain which characterizes the blues and Black folk music. Singing Under the Harlem Moon in honor of Ethel Waters, Giddens suggests she might develop a portrait of  the singer.  Elia Kazan said of Waters, “She is a combination of fervent religiosity and deep hate." What will Giddens make of this?  

Giddens is music director of the Ojai festival (Juan 8-11 2023) and here is the offering:

  • World Premiere of Omar’s Journey, an Ojai commissioned suite for voices and chamber ensemble drawn from the opera Omar by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels. The new work, placed in the context of the journey of Omar ibn Said (1770-1864), is contextualized by the music of Senegal and the Carolinas
  • A reimagining of Tan Dun’s pioneering Ghost Opera for pipa and string quartet
  • An acoustic concert with Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi featuring music ranging from Baroque to Appalachian ballads and traditional Black American songs
  • Carlos Simon’s Between Worlds, four string works placed directly in the visual context of the work of the self-taught artist Bill Traylor whose lived experience (1853-1949) spanned the Civil War, Emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Great Migration
  • “Strings Attached” concert – a festive finale of bowed and string instruments from cultures in the Americas, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East
  • An “Early Music” concert curated by Francesco Turrisi with music spanning from ancient pipa music to works of Dowland and Monteverdi

Carnegie is a house that will not be moved, like the house Giddens sings about building. This is a comforting thought.