Rhiannon Giddens Adds New Dimensions to Ojai

A New Silkroad Winds Across a Boundary-less World

By: - Jun 27, 2023

The Ojai Festival opened with a tribute to Kaija Saariaho, who died this month in Paris. As she emerged as a composer, Saariaho remembers being told that no one would listen to her music if she wasn't so pretty.

And now we have Ojai Music director Rhiannon Giddens, a polymathic music maker who is also beautiful. No one would dare make a comment about her looks attracting ears and souls to her work. She has succeeded because she has great gifts: a beautiful operatic voice that delivers stories with great compassion and wisdom.  

Marin Alsop, who is working on a project with Giddens, was in attendance. She has had her own trials this year.  The offensive film Tar was said to be based on her. Apart from being a married lesbian with children, there is no similarity between the Tar character and Alsop’s. (Lydia Tar is a conductor in name only).

Alsop weathered the storm by decrying the film.  It has found no supporters in the music community.

A Seattle entrepreneur was also on hand at Ojai courting Giddens for future performances. Giddens is a busy lady.  Yet when she engages an audience, you sense that she is a thousand percent present.  

Omar, an opera Giddens created with Michael Abels, may be spiritually scouring in its depiction of the slave marketplace, but in the end, it enables the slave, encouraging us to see his world as one in which he had a choice. He chose to save himself by fidelity to his Muslim belief. 

Giddens can be sublime and transcendent.  There's a certain grandeur in her stories. 

While Giddens seems to welcome all sound that can be heard, she has a preference for melody, and for emotional tones that reflect the stories she is telling. Many people enjoy listening to her.  She wants to get her message across–widely. She is a crossover pop and classic artist, reflecting the music around her.

An innate sweetness and gentleness governs.  The boundary between audience and artist disappears.  We hear sounds in styles from decades of music, including a concert devoted to early music curated by Francesco Turrisi. There is an urgency in the expression.   

Curiously, Giddes doesn't seem as free as composers who relish the end of subservience to Church, to aristocracy, the bourgeoisie.  She cares about the mass public, and she is committed to exploring the long-buried stories of Black peoples. She is not going to ignore music lovers and music consumers. Often her own tones are like rainbows in the sun. 

In a Southpark episode, the men all gather and drop their pants to announce that they should not be discriminated against in this feminist surge (as white people are whispering the same complaint with the Black surge).  The Festival didn’t discriminate against anyone.  The world was embraced. We heard compositions by Lei Liang, who grew up in the ‘cultural revolution’ in China and never learned his native history in his birth home.  Arriving at the University of Texas, Austin, at 18, he went to the library.  He was shocked to find volumes on Chinese history on the shelves. In English and Chinese.  There he learned his own history.

Our time is boundary-less. In the spirit of Debussy, Giddens and Liang capture the sounds of the world around them and create tones.  Composers travel to far off places and record folk tunes, a tradition that is tens of thousands of years old in China.  Emperors wanted to know what their people were thinking and feeling.  The folk tunes brought back by the Bela Bartok’s of their day sent messages. The pulse of a people is in music.  People want to hear their heartbeats.

Tooling down Route 5 from Los Angeles to San Diego after the festival concluded on Sunday, we realized we were on the very route that inspired one of Saariaho’s most recent compositions, Vista.  How well her music captured the California coastline.  She was a woman of the world, but California, and California's adoptees, Esa Pekka Salonen and Peter Sellars, held special spots in her heart.  

Giddens too embraces the world, traveling often and taking with her the insights she has gleaned in quiet contemplation.  Her desire to help us remember the experience of slaves brought to America has shown us also the history of the banjo as an African instrument, and its musical lore. Her opera Omar helps us understand the deep spiritual feelings that helped slaves survive seemingly soul-damning treatment. A listener is gripped and drawn into the flight path of sound.  Special training is not necessary.  Sensual shock – like a clap of thunder in a bottomless abyss in a concert-version of the opera commissioned by the Ojai Festiva.

Yet the music is often of surpassing tenderness, even if it inhabits a far off place that few travelers will chance upon.

Giddens wants to make music a life-changing force in addition to capturing landscape through subtle textures suffused with instrumental color.  Her worlds are complex, both geographical, historical and natural.   

She arrives at the almost 2,700 seat Beacon Theater in New York next March.