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When Rhiannon Giddens sat down to curate a pair of concerts for the Boston Pops, the popular image of a classical composer was never far from her mind.
"When you hear composer, you think, like, Beethoven: guy in a powdered wig, at a piano, furiously scribbling on manuscript paper," Giddens said. "That’s not the only image that a composer should bring up, you know. But that’s kind of what we’ve said it is."
The Pops program Giddens ultimately conceived aims to expand that archetypal image by exclusively featuring work by black artists. She was inspired by the concept of black excellence, Giddens said: "This idea of what African-American culture has been able to do under great duress, what black entertainers and creators have been able to do in a world that has consistently said they are no good."
The concerts include work by classical composers like Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who was celebrated in his day at the turn of the 20th century but never entered the classical canon, and Florence Price, the first African-American woman to have a piece played by a major orchestra. The program boasts some unexpected choices as well, including an homage to Hazel Scott, a piano prodigy who dominated the jazz circuit in the 1930s and '40s and was the first black woman to host her own television variety show. (Scott, who refused to play for segregated audiences, has been a source of inspiration for many musicians, including Alicia Keys, who shouted her out at this year's Grammys.) It will also feature the orchestral premiere of a newly-excavated piece by the jazz composer Eubie Blake, which was written for the Pops' longtime director Arthur Fiedler but was shelved when the conductor died in 1979. On hand to help execute the wide-ranging program are the Broadway singer Darius de Haas and the pianist Lara Downes.
Giddens is well-suited to the project. Throughout her career, the singer and banjo player has made it her mission to disrupt widely accepted ideas about American music. She is best known for her work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a Grammy-winning, all-black string band that challenged the popular narrative of southern string music as an exclusively white tradition.
In the years since the Carolina Chocolate Drops released their second record, Giddens has put out two solo studio albums, cut an LP with the banjo supergroup Our Native Daughters and scooped up a MacArthur "genius grant." Most recently, she released "there is no Other" with the multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, an omnivorous collaboration exploring folk traditions from around the world.
Giddens' relationship with the Pops began last year, when she made a much-lauded guest appearance during the July 4th Fireworks Spectacular. Pops conductor Keith Lockhart invited the musician back to perform for two nights with her band, but asked that she come up with something different for the second half of the four-night residency.
The Pops may be a particularly good match for the program Giddens created. "That's one of the things that is great with the Boston Pops, of course, is that we are not so genre-bound as, say, our parent organization, the BSO," Lockhart said. "We are not restricted to the classical canon."
The program represents an opportunity to draw attention to composers like Margaret Bonds, who is recognized for her collaborations with the poet Langston Hughes and her arrangements of spirituals, but less for her classical bona fides.
It was not unusual for 20th century black classical composers, like Bonds, to also work in more popular styles. "That was what they could actually get employed to do, because nobody was going to premiere their symphony," Lockhart said. "Somebody was going to premiere their musical in a Harlem Theater just north of Broadway. But nobody was going to play their symphony."
The mix of genres on the program offers a more expansive view of composition, in which an improviser like Hazel Scott has just as much claim to authorship as a classical composer like Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.
"It's not just, 'Who do we consider a composer?' from a racial sense, but it's also just, 'Who do we consider a composer,' period," Giddens said. "I think that there's people who live with the music in their bodies and there's people who live with the music in their heads [and] in their hands. And I don't necessarily think one needs to be elevated over the other."
It may be strange to think of Symphony Hall as a place for subverting hierarchies. But Giddens believes it’s as good a setting as any. As she sees it, the fundamental problem of American music touches all genres. In everything from bluegrass to classical to pop, black contributions have been minimized, diverted from the mainstream narrative into their own, less central story.
"The cultural narrative we have is flawed," Giddens said. "And it's deliberate. Separation in culture and arts does nobody any favors except for the people in power. That's just it. ... So I feel like I'm in the business of challenging that narrative."
Changing that narrative means reckoning with all that it leaves out: the voices that were discounted, the opportunities denied, the work that never came to fruition or was forgotten. It's a much more complicated, painful story than the one we’ve long been led to believe — more fraught, and more full.
The Boston Pops present "An Evening With Rhiannon Giddens" on May 22 and 23, and continues with "Rhiannon Giddens and Friends Rediscover the Incredible Black Composer" on May 24 and 25.
This segment aired on May 22, 2019.
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