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For one night, music eased the loss of the last two years

Singer Rhiannon Giddens performs onstage during AMERICANAFEST's Pre-Grammy Salute to Willie Nelson at The Troubadour on January 25, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)
Singer Rhiannon Giddens performs onstage during AMERICANAFEST's Pre-Grammy Salute to Willie Nelson at The Troubadour on January 25, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)

Against my better (COVID) judgment I bought a ticket to Silkroad Ensemble’s Phoenix Rising concert at the American Repertory Theater last month.

Since the start of the pandemic, I have let subscriptions to the A.R.T., Celebrity Series, and Broadway in Boston go unrenewed. As much as I have missed shows and readings and concerts, they have not seemed worth the risk.

With a few exceptions, I have not dined indoors or even hosted friends in my home since March of 2020. With three children under 12, I have been on the COVID-conservative side relative to many of my friends. Even among people with children, I’ve felt resentful as birthday invitations have begun to arrive with pre-COVID frequency, putting me in the position of emailing follow-up questions and telling my children "no" even though they know some of their classmates will be attending.

When I walked by the A.R.T. and saw Rhiannon Gidden’s photo looking out at me from an enormous orange poster, my body instinctively paused before one of the large panes of glass at the theater’s entrance. I am a huge Giddens fan. She’s got a voice that vibrates from a place deep inside her soul; her lyrics and storytelling, her banjo playing — she pierces me in ways few other musicians can. Her song “Julie” is one I revisit often, ever since it was first played for me during a weekend retreat I did with other antiracist educators.

When my daughters returned to in-person school we were all grateful. Of course, there were new masking and testing protocols to learn, alongside the alphabet and Greek mythology, but we knew the new routines and rules were in place to protect the community.

One afternoon, I asked my kindergartener about her day. Through her retelling, I learned that she was not allowed to sing. Their music teachers could — as they beamed into their classroom virtually from the music room — but the students, for safety reasons, could not. While I understood the why of this rule, my heart hurt, knowing how much singing used to be part of their days; how certain songs are rites of passage for a given school year and curriculum. In kindergarten they sing “Thankful,” in second grade it's “River,” a song I fondly associate with my own summer camp days.

I’m sure I was projecting, too. Chorus was a formative experience for me throughout elementary and high school. Singing in an ensemble is the thing I miss most in my adult life, the feel of voices vibrating and braiding together, the resulting melodies so much richer than any one person’s efforts.

The performance at the A.R.T. was to be Gidden’s first with the Silk Road Ensemble since taking over as their artistic director. I’d seen the ensemble live with its founder, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, at Carnegie Hall over a decade ago. I remember how it felt to watch the musicians layer their notes together in conversation. I experienced instruments new to me — as though I’d been listening to them my entire life — communicating something overwhelming and universal, yet seemingly just for me.

I felt two years’ worth of loss and exhaustion leave my body, as I sat in a theater for the first time in just as long.

I bought myself a ticket to the A.R.T. show at the last minute. It felt impulsive. I worried I was taking an unnecessary risk, and for what? But as I listened to Giddens sing during the opening number — dressed in a gorgeous, full-length red skirt and long earrings adorned with feathers that brushed against her shoulders — I had my answer. Goosebumps rose on my arms. Tears flowed freely down my double-masked face, as her voice channeled the collective pain we have all been carrying.

I felt two years’ worth of loss and exhaustion leave my body, as I sat in a theater for the first time in just as long. Something that used to feel so routine, was once again novel, and I did not take a minute for granted. I thought back to Gidden’s 2019 Tiny Desk Concert, towards the end of which she says:

“It’s such a big thing, what we do on this planet, and what we’ve done to this planet. And what we’ve done to ourselves. So much beauty and so much horribleness all wrapped up together seems to be our story. But to get through day by day you have to focus on the thing that keep you going.”

As I had suspected, famous Cantabrigian and Silk Road Ensemble founder Yo-Yo Ma made a cameo. For the duration of his performance, it was as though the audience collectively held our breath. I remembered reading about how Ma had brought his cello with him to his vaccination clinic in the Berkshires and had played for those sitting through their 15-minutes of observation time.

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My girls are allowed to sing again. The 5-year-old comes home singing tunes that jog the 11-year-old’s memory, pulling her out of her tween angst. For fleeting moments, she dances around with her younger sisters. My 9-year-old  shows me how she uses her head and chest as percussion instruments, her joy unbridled as she shimmies to the rhythm of her own making.

Zoom cannot replicate the feeling that results from bodies together in a space experiencing and making art. It’s in the way a singer’s vibrato can push you back against the back of your seat, while your seat neighbor is drawn to lean towards the stage. It’s the feeling you get from witnessing a drummer’s entire body convey the rhythms he is creating on the tabla; the emotion of a cellist’s closed eyes, deepening the melancholy of the performance.

This is what I knew but had forgotten, and needed so desperately to be reminded of, that evening watching Giddens, Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. As updates of omicron flood the news, I don't know when I will next give in to the pull to enter a theater. For now, I have the memories of that night, and a chorus of girls in my living room to sing me home.

Editor's note: The author is currently a consultant to WBUR, leading a multi-part series on diversity, equity and inclusion at the station. 

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Anri Wheeler Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Anri Wheeler is a biracial writer, educator and mother of three strong daughters. She is writing a memoir about race, class and motherhood.

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