Thursday, March 20, 2014

Carolina Chocolate Drops with the NC Symphony

9:08 PM
As a high school student in 2005, I scored the coolest Jan term internship EVER at the Arts-Based Elementary School in Winston-Salem. Their artist in residence at the time was Rhiannon Giddens, then (or then recently) a lyric coloratura soprano in the Opera Performance grad program at UNCG. I was musically obsessed with opera, so while I was coveting Rhiannon’s gorgeous, floating high notes, it barely registered with me that she also played the fiddle and banjo and was deeply involved in contra dancing and folk music. 

Following my internship, I remembered her for her ability to control the fourth-graders with the promise that those who behaved would hear her "sing a very high note while bending over backwards." Otherwise, I thought of her as a gifted classical singer who wasn't up to anything in the opera world that I was aware of. 

Then, of course:

Yup, it was THAT Rhiannon Giddens, of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who have since become the favorite old-fashioned Southern folk outfit of everyone in the world.

We went out last weekend to see the Drops in concert with the North Carolina Symphony.
The program began with Respighi's Ancient Airs and Dances, which sounded wonderful through the doors to Meymandi Concert Hall. (My concertgoing companion and I were late and couldn't enter until the applause following this suite--oops. No further comment.)

Giddens and her bandmates came out to play just as we settled into our seats, and I was at first surprised to see three minstrel songs from the 19th century listed on the program. As Rhiannon explained in her introduction to this set, the American minstrel show entailed the appropriation of African-American musical traditions by white performers, who often fitted the tunes with horrifically racist lyrics and always performed them in blackface. 

But while conducting research into the American minstrel show, Giddens ran across these songs and others that she described as "just amazing tunes." The Carolina Chocolate Drops presented them that night with new lyrics, written by Rhiannon and reflecting more authentic African-American perspectives of the time. To me, the most striking of these was "Better Get Your Learnin'" (originally titled "Get Up In De Mornin,'"), which told grim tales of men lynched for sending their children to school, teachers dead of whooping cough before the first day of class, and the determination of African-Americans in the post-Restoration South to beat the odds and receive an education.

The first half of the program ended with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's "Symphonic Variations on an African Air," a texturally rich orchestral exploration of the spiritual "I'm Troubled in Mind" that made me for the first time kind of get why people refer to Coleridge-Taylor as "the Black Mahler."

After intermission (you can get a DELICIOUS cup of coffee during intermission at Meymandi, you guys), Rhiannon was back as a solo vocalist with songs from a brief flowering of African American-written and -performed shows on Broadway at the start of the 20th century. "Rain Song," "Wid de Moon, Moon, Moon," and "Swing Along"--all composed by Will Marion Cook--were totally charming, and Rhiannon has still not lost her impeccable classical vocal technique. In these songs, it combined with her folk stylings to create the best of two vocal worlds--plummy, warm chest voice in the low and middle range; shimmering beauty on top. The symphony accompanied her in lush, clever arrangements created specifically for this performance by composer Aaron Grad. 

Finally, we heard William Grant Still's "Afro-American Symphony." With this work, it was Still's stated intention to bring symphonic expression to the Blues. I feel like when the classical world tries to do the Blues, we often get bogged down in the superficial trappings of the genre, but here all of the wa-wa mutes and slinky chromatics were undergirded with an incredible depth of feeling. To me it's Eroica-like in the nuance and intensity of its emotional journey. (Less of a time commitment, though. Listen!)

The icing on the cake was a post-concert Q & A with Grant Llewelyn, the symphony's superb conductor; the members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops; and Aaron Grad; where my question to Rhiannon about her transition from classical to folk performer segued into a discussion among the whole panel about integrating the conservatively-defined classical canon with other types of music, such as folk and music theater. 

Beautiful Rhiannon!!
There was a striking and moving theme of reclamation to the evening, most obviously in the Drops' reworking of the minstrel songs. Too, Giddens chose to perform the Broadway pieces--and the poems she read aloud in between movements of the final symphony--in the dialect in which they were written, which has often been used to stereotype African-Americans. The Symphony mostly skirted the sense of tokenism that can arise when classical outlets program music by Black composers, which still happens much too rarely and under too-specific circumstances. It was clear in the Q & A that Llewellyn, Grad, and the performers feel good about bringing rarely-performed works like Coleridge-Taylor's Variations or Will Marion Cook's songs into the public ear. But, arranger Grad said emphatically before the conversation went too far in this direction, "we're not doing this music because it's historically significant--we're doing it because it's great."

Most exciting to me: Llewellyn, Giddens, and Grad had a lot to say about the investigation they've done together into Cook's music, which had fallen into almost total disuse between Cook's career in the nineteen-teens and twenties and the performance I saw last week. They all alluded to interest in further use of his work--more arrangements, more performances. Hopefully, Raleigh will be the site of further collaboration between some or all of these parties and we'll end up here with multiple posts tagged "Will Marion Cook!"

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I'm Andrea. Everything you need to know is here.