Acclaimed musician Rhiannon Giddens returns to Amp stage for CSO collaboration

Grammy Award-winning musician and MacArthur “Genius” grant recipient Rhiannon Giddens has graced the stage of the Amphitheater on several occasions — as a solo performer in 2017, with her musical collaborator and romantic partner Francesco Turrisi in 2018 and 2020, and with her folk quartet of Black female banjo players, Our Native Daughters, in 2019. 

This season, for the first time, Giddens will be performing with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra. Stuart Chafetz, the principal pops conductor for the CSO, who has been playing the timpani and conducting with the orchestra for 25 years, will conduct this evening.

“I’m extremely excited to get to work with her on this collaboration with the symphony,” Chafetz said.

An Evening with Rhiannon Giddens will continue the programming for Week Nine’s theme “A Vibrant Tapestry: Exploring Creativity, Culture, and Faith with Smithsonian Folklife Festival.” Giddens will perform her music, a blend of original songs and covers that draws on a myriad of influences, with the CSO at 8:15 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 23 in the Amp.

Deborah Sunya Moore, senior vice president and chief program officer, is a longtime admirer of Giddens’ music and work. After Giddens performed at Chautauqua with Our Native Daughters, two of her bandmates, Allison Russell and Amythyst Kiah, returned to Chautauqua for their own programs in 2021.

“(Giddens) talked about wanting to invite more Black and Brown sisters along,” Moore said. “The main thing was lifting up her sister musicians of color.”  

Giddens’ work is focused on reclaiming and emphasizing the rich cultural history of Black American music. She plays in a genre-defying amalgamation of American traditions, including bluegrass, jazz, gospel, country and folk music. 

“She has many influences, from American to Celtic to various other styles,” Chafetz said. “They’re very inspiring and very unique.” 

Giddens is a singer, a songwriter and a multi-instrumentalist, playing the banjo and the fiddle, among other string instruments. She co-composed the score and wrote the libretto for the original opera Omar, which had its world premiere at Charleston’s Spoleto Festival in late May. 

Additionally, Giddens wrote the score for a ballet titled Lucy Negro Redux, based on a poetry collection of the same name by Caroline Randall Williams. She developed the ballet in collaboration with Williams, Turrisi and the Nashville Ballet at Chautauqua in 2018. 

During a Week Eight residency that season, Giddens and Turrisi worked on the material for the ballet, which explores the presence of the “Dark Lady” in William Shakespeare’s sonnets, a figure who many theorize was a Black woman. That week’s theme, “The Forgotten: History and Memory in the 21st Century,” dovetailed with Giddens’ passion for excavating the erased and neglected past.

Giddens’ artistry foregrounds the exploration of Black musical history and the reclamation of historically disrespected instruments like the minstrel banjo. Her 2019 album, with Turrisi, there is no Other, features original tunes and covers that unite musical traditions from opera to Appalachian bluegrass.

“Listening to her records can feel like exploring a well-curated home,” Sam Sodomsky wrote in a review of that album for Pitchfork. “Take, for instance, her banjo. A familiar tool within her favored arenas (folk, bluegrass, old-time music), it serves Giddens as a symbol within a symbol: a custom-made recreation of the 19th century African American instrument adopted by white musicians and popularized through minstrel shows. She plays it as a reclamation, a way to ensure her music’s history remains inextricable from its delivery.”

Chafetz has enjoyed digging into Giddens’ music in preparation for the upcoming concert.

“I’ve just been becoming familiar with her style, which is vast and amazing,” he said. “She sings, she plays the banjo, she plays the violin. And so the question is: How does the symphony fit in with enhancing what she does? It’s really wonderful to listen to her style and her work as I prepare the music and study the scores.”

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The author Ellen E. Mintzer

Ellen E. Mintzer is the theater beat reporter for The Chautauquan Daily this summer. She recently earned her Master of Arts in arts journalism and communications from Syracuse University. As a freelance arts and culture journalist, she’s written reviews and features about theater, opera, dance, film and more. Ellen loves weird niche comedy, psychological horror and provocative contemporary theater. (A Strange Loop is the best work of art she saw this year.) She is absolutely thrilled to be spending her summer in Chautauqua and covering its theatrical offerings and beyond.