Rhiannon Giddens Directs at Ojai

Giddens Tells The Whole Story

By: - May 29, 2023

OJAI Festival, June 8-12 2023

Each year at the Ojai Festival in California a different Music Director is given the freedom and the resources to imagine four days of musical brainstorming. Ojai’s signature blend of an enchanted setting and an audience voracious in its appetite for challenge and discovery has inspired a distinguished series of musical innovators—from Pierre Boulez, Aaron Copland, and Igor Stravinsky and Jeremy Denk, Dawn Upshaw and Barbara Hannigan.  John Adams has directed twice.  

Rhiannon Giddens made a stunning Ojai Festival debut in September 2021, when the venue opened up again after Covid.  In a morning program she sang her own songs and those of John Adams, Paul Wianko, Caroline Shaw and Gabriella Smith .

At the Libbey Bowl, she was joined by another debutant, the Attaca Quartet, who will become a frequent ally and is scheduled for the upcoming festival. She was joined by her partner Francisco Turrisi, in a program calling us home, developed during Covid lockdown and celebrating home and honoring pandemic death sas well.

Among Gideden's many roles is the artistic directorship of Silkroad, founded by Yo Yo Ma. Giddens defies international boundaries and cultural blockades through the beauty and complexity of her own voice. Giddens’ experience at Oberlin College,  tudying classical music, and singing operas like Manon, has developed her particularly rich voice.

Hidden away, yet deeply influencing her choice of songs and themes is a scholar of Black culture, who has wrested from oblivion artifacts of slavery in this country from its inception to its current expression.  She wants to change people with her voice and doe this –giving profound pleasure as she shows us Ethel Waters singing Harlem Moon.  

Having trouble putting pen to paper to launch his writing career, James Baldwin moved to the Swiss mountains taking with him two records of Bessie Smith singing.  In them, he found his voice. Much of Smith's texture and color comes to us through crude recordings.  

Giddens gives us texture through the use of the banjo, whose history as an African instrument she has told. Giddens gives voice to so many elements of Black cultural history in her profound interpretations.

She has widened her horizons to the world's.  The Ojai Festival will give us a four-day tasting session where we can listen until the evening sun goes down in the Libbey Bowl.  From Carlos Simon, who grew up on gospel in the church where his father preached to  We, The Innumerable by the Iranian composer Niloufar Nourbakhsh. (We heard the world premiere in concert form at National Sawdust.)

It is not surprising to have titles like Liquid Borders COmposing Across Boundaries, and Old Instruments, New Music.  In her commitment to telling the whole story, particularly about slavery and its consequences in this country, Giddens uses every device available to her, including her own beautiful voice, which she can turn to any musical purpose, from classical to folk.

If you can't make it to Ojai, listen to Ojai podcasts and live streaming.