A disastrous outpouring of genius

By Lawrence Toppman

The concert lasted four hours in an unheated Vienna hall on a December night. The underrehearsed orchestra couldn’t follow the conductor, who started the last piece over after shouting “Quiet! Quiet! This isn’t working! Once again!” The soprano soloist, a terrified last-minute replacement, mangled her part. Yet never before or after have more masterpieces by one composer premiered on the same bill.

Beethoven intended this benefit concert of 1808 to show the world that, on the eve of his 38th birthday, he had no peer in classical music. So he bombarded listeners with brilliance, overwhelming even his fans. Composer Johann Reichardt couldn’t follow other weary patrons out the door, because he sat with Prince Lobkowitz, one of Beethoven’s patrons. Afterward, Reichardt wrote, “One can easily have too much of a good thing – and still more of a loud.”

Judge for yourself on Aug. 16, when Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival airs a recreation of the concert. That free broadcast comes from a March 1 performance by conductor Louis Langrée and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra; it offers world-class soloists in pianist Inon Barnatan and soprano Dorothea Röschmann.

The first half consists of the Symphony No. 6 (the “Pastoral”), the 14-minute concert aria “Ah! Perfido,” the Gloria from the Mass in C, and the Piano Concerto No. 4. After intermission comes the Symphony No. 5, the Sanctus from the Mass in C, an improvised piano fantasia and the Choral Fantasy for piano, chorus and orchestra.

The two symphonies, the concerto and the concert fantasy all got their first public performances at that benefit. Beethoven conducted and played the keyboard in the concerto, the fantasia and the long, mostly improvised beginning to the Choral Fantasy. (He never played a concerto publicly again, because of deafness.)

Imagine listeners trying to absorb the weighty drama of the Fifth Symphony after two hours of music and a long, drink-filled intermission. How strange it must have been to have two sections of a mass – translated into German and presented as “hymns,” because it was illegal to put sacred music on a secular program – shoved in among orchestral and pianistic powerhouses.

Stunned critics responded with guarded approval that grew after later hearings. Prince Esterházy, Haydn’s former patron, gave Beethoven 100 gulden to wipe out debts. The composer had proved his point, even if he’d blown people’s minds to do it.

Classically Trained: Carlisle Floyd

Pictured: American opera composer Carlisle Floyd; By Rena Schild/Shutterstock.

By Siân Lewis

Discover something new today! This series explores the lives and contributions of classical artists with connections to the Carolinas. Intended as quick “brain breaks” for learners of all ages, these educational features can be divided into sections for daily reading or used as lesson plans for students at home.


Name: Carlisle Floyd (b. 1926)

Profession: Opera composer and librettist

Fun Fact: Carlisle completed his first opera, Slow Dusk, as a project toward his Master’s degree in Piano with a minor in Composition. 

Beginnings and Early Influences

Little did he know, but a South Carolina boy who begged his mother for piano lessons at the age of three (only to quit when he realized that there was “work involved”) would one day be called the “Father of American Opera.” Luckily, the admired opera composer and librettist Carlisle Floyd regained his interest in the piano at 10 – and this time, he excelled.

In 1943, Carlisle earned a scholarship to attend Converse College in Spartanburg, SC, where he studied piano under Ernst Bacon, a respected composer, pianist, and conductor. When Ernst took a position at Syracuse University in New York, Carlisle followed him and received a Bachelor of Music from Syracuse at the age of 20. Shortly after his graduation, Carlisle began his teaching career at Florida State University and remained on the faculty for thirty years, eventually becoming Professor of Composition.

Carlisle was exposed to the ever-evolving world of American classical music through Ernst, who championed the development of American musical independence. Not only did the American “camp” of classical composition resonate with Carlisle stylistically, it also empowered him to explore composition through his own unique lens. Inspired by lessons his creative writing teacher imparted at Converse (“write what you know” and “mine your experiences of the locations and the people that you have come across”), Carlisle would go on to use his rural upbringing and experience with the working class as fodder for his operas.

Why Opera? 

Although his preliminary training was in piano, Carlisle explains in an interview with NEA Opera Honors that there was never truly a question for him when it came to what he would compose. As a graduate student with a burgeoning interest in composition, the combination of dramatic and musical elements drew him to theatrical works, and his use of text for nearly every project revealed opera to be the “natural arena to spend (his) creative life.”

Although his first two operas, Slow Dusk and The Fugitives, were not particularly successful, these explorations paved the way to his most beloved and well-known work: Susannah. Carlisle sees his musical journey as one of growth and development; in his own words, The Fugitivesbombed royally,” and “Susannah would not have been possible” had he not had this experience with failure.

Susannah: Based on the Apocryphal tale of Susannah and the Elders, Susannah tells the story of a spirited young woman of humble origins who is faced with unjust hostility from her church community.

Featuring Appalachian folk melodies interwoven with Protestant hymns and “traditional” elements of classical music, Susannah officially premiered at Florida State University in 1955. Just one year later, the New York City Opera produced the groundbreaking work to significant acclaim – and the opera world took notice. Over 65 years after its premiere, Susannah remains the second most-performed American opera behind George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

While searching forsingers for Susannah, Carlisle was surprised that Phyllis Curtin, already an established New York City Opera star, was so willing to listen to the work of a relatively unknown composer. After a brief phone meeting, Carlisle visited her house to read through the two main arias with her. Phyllis, who would be cast as the original Susannah, fell in love with the piece immediately: born and raised in West Virginia, Phyllis felt “sympathetic” to the character and related to her in ways she had never experienced with an operatic role. Phyllis reprised her performance in the New York City Opera production and went on to sing the title role many times, including the 1958 World’s Fair production in Brussels.

In an interview, Carlisle explained his desire to “redress the balance (of opera) with drama and music,” creating an art form that anyone can enjoy – and by all accounts, Susannah was “very easily accepted” by audiences in its earliest days. Not only is the story widely accessible, but its musical influences resonate with the American experience, particularly in the rural South and Appalachia. In Phyllis’ words, Susannah “exemplifies what real opera is… a remarkable coming together of people and music.”

Video: Renée Fleming sings “Ain’t it a pretty night” from Susannah 
Other Works

Following the success of Susannah, Carlisle went on to compose numerous other operas such as Wuthering Heights (1958) and Of Mice and Men (1970). After a hiatus of almost twenty years, Carlisle completed the opera Cold Sassy Tree (2000), based on the novel by Olive Ann Burns. As his only venture into comedy, Cold Sassy Tree was a completely new experience for Carlisle; he notes that he once told his wife he felt like he’d “never written an opera before” while piecing the work together. Carlisle’s most recent opera, Prince of Players, was commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera and premiered in 2016. 

Video: “I Yearn So T’Know Things” from Cold Sassy Tree  
Recognition and Legacy

Credited with creating “a distinctly American idiom for opera”, Carlisle has often been recognized for his vital contributions to the field. A recipient of the coveted Guggenheim Fellowship in 1956, he would go on to receive numerous awards for his work in the arts.

“I think anything that is expressed directly and as honestly as possible will last.”

– Carlisle Floyd

Some of the most notable include: 

1957: Citation of Merit from the National Association of American Conductors and Composers

1983: National Opera’s Institute Award for Service to American Opera

2004: National Medal of Arts from the White House

2008: National Endowment for the Arts Opera Honoree

2010: Anton Coppola Excellence in the Arts Award from Opera Tampa

2011: Induction into the South Carolina Hall of Fame

2012: Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Man of Music (the highest honor for a member of the American music fraternity)

2015: Inducted into the Florida Artist Hall of Fame

Video: NEA Opera Honors: Carlisle Floyd Tribute

Spotify Playlist
  1. Susannah, Act II: “The trees on the mountain” (Carlisle Floyd) – Renée Fleming, I Want Magic!
  2. Susannah, Act I: “Ain’t it a pretty night?” (Carlisle Floyd) – Renée Fleming, I Want Magic!
  3. Susannah, Act II: “Hear me, O Lord, I beseech thee” (Carlisle Floyd) – American Classics
  4. “The Mystery” – Carlisle Floyd, Five Songs of Motherhood for Soprano and Orchestra
  5. Susannah, Act I: Opening Music – Carlisle Floyd, Susannah (Opera de Leon)
  6. Prince of Players, Act II: “Howl, Howl, Howl, Howl, Howl!” – Carlisle Floyd, Prince of Players (The Florentine Opera)

NEA Opera Honors: Interview with Carlisle Floyd

NEA Opera Honors: Phyllis Curtin on Carlisle Floyd 

Innocence and Experience in Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah (San Francisco Opera)

Biography: Carlisle Floyd (Boosey & Hawkes)

FLOYD: Susannah (Opera News)

Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony

By Lawrence Toppman

Who knew, right? After the May 1824 premiere of the Ninth Symphony, his longest and most overwhelming orchestral masterpiece, Beethoven turned to another symphony. Though he lived three more years, he never got beyond sketches for all four movements.

His intentions have inspired fiction, from Peter Ustinov’s play “Beethoven’s Tenth” to Sue Latham’s novel “The Haunted House Symphony.” NPR broadcast an April Fool’s Day “story” in 2012 about the discovery of the Tenth. Conductor Hans von Bülow even called Brahms’ First Symphony “Beethoven’s Tenth,” because the main tune of Brahms’s finale resembled a corresponding theme in Beethoven’s Ninth. (Brahms’ response: “Any ass can see that.”)

The reality remains elusive. Beethoven liked to work on two major pieces at the same time, as he did with the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, and he started the Tenth while polishing the Ninth. In the 1980s, British musicologist Barry Cooper assembled 50 sketches amounting to 300 bars. He then filled them out with another 200 bars to create an andante-allegro-andante opening movement that lasts 16 minutes.

I listened this week to the 1988 recording by Walter Weller and the City of Birmingham Symphony in their complete set of Beethoven symphonies. Sadly, the piece remains forgettable after multiple hearings. It doesn’t break new ground, contain memorable material or even sound especially like Beethoven. Perhaps we’re lucky he didn’t leave enough material for Cooper to rebuild the other movements.

Why didn’t Beethoven finish it? His letters don’t say. He wasn’t completely out of creative juice, because he produced five incomparable string quartets after the Ninth Symphony. He could certainly have gotten the Tenth published, famous as he was, and made money if he’d wanted. Maybe he just didn’t care to complete hackwork in a genre he’d redefined and dominated.

We might equally well ask why he started in the first place, as neither he nor anyone else could surpass his monumental Ninth. I suppose one mark of genius is that you must never stop trying, even after you realize you’ve peaked.

That explains the mawkish late plays of Tennessee Williams and hollow final works of Igor Stravinsky. Not everyone can end on “The Cherry Orchard” or a great requiem mass; Chekhov and Mozart wouldn’t have done so either, if they’d lived past 45. Geniuses simply have to keep creating, whether the fires of inspiration blaze high or sink feebly to embers.

Classically Trained: Nkeiru Okoye

By Mary Lathem

Discover something new today! This series explores the lives and contributions of classical artists with connections to the Carolinas. Intended as quick “brain breaks” for learners of all ages, these educational features can be divided into sections for daily reading or used as lesson plans for students at home.


NAME: Nkeiru Okoye


FUN FACT: Nkeiru premiered and conducted her piece “The Creation” in 1999 while earning her Ph.D. at Rutgers University – with actor Danny Glover as narrator.

Early Studies and Recognition

From an early age, Nkeiru Okoye’s mind was buzzing with music. She couldn’t help but hear melodies and rhythms where others did not, often making up music to go with words from the storybooks her mother read to her. In a 2006 interview with the Baltimore Sun, Nkeiru speculated, “If I had been born into a musical family they might have recognized that I was a composer… but I wasn’t.” Nkeiru’s musical gifts became unmistakable when she entered a national composition competition sponsored by the NAACP at age 13 and took first prize. She would later earn a Bachelor of Music degree in Composition from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and a Ph.D. in Music Theory and Composition from Rutgers University

During her studies, Nkeiru made her presence known in the composition field as accolades began to pour in. She received the prestigious ASCAP Grant for Young Composers in 1995, followed by a 1997 UNISYS African American Composer Residency with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. In 1999, she received the Yvar Mikhashoff Trust for New Music Grant

Musical Style and Notable Works

Described as “genre-bending” with a “dizzying range of influences,” Nkeiru’s works showcase expertise in a wide variety of genres and techniques. She is particularly at home in the opera/theatre and symphonic mediums. “Voices Shouting Out,” “a wistful, percussive wonder composed by Nkeiru Okoye in the aftermath of September 11, 2001,” was commissioned by the Virginia Symphony Orchestra in 2002 and remains her best known work. The narrated orchestral piece “The Journey of Phillis Wheatly,” a collaborative effort between Nkeiru and writer Carolivia Herron, followed in 2005. 

 In 2014, American Opera Projects premiered Nkeiru’s two-act operaHARRIET TUBMAN: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom ,” hailed as “a great American opera” with “irresistible, invigorating, and vivid” music. The seminal theatrical work traces the life of the legendary Underground Railroad conductor, beginning as a child born into slavery with extraordinary strength of spirit. The audience experiences “an intriguing peek into (Tubman’s) life, seeing her hardworking and compassionate parents, the sister she fiercely loves, and John Tubman, the man she married but who gave her little more than the surname which became one of the most famous in the annals of abolitionism.” Abolitionists Rev. Samuel Green  and William Still, both free African Americans, are part of the story as well. The opera includes Nkeiru’s 2006 song cycle “Songs of Harriet Tubman,” which has become “established repertoire for African American sopranos,” in its entirety.

 Nkeiru’s most recent works include “We’ve Got Our Eye on You” (2016), “Invitation to a Die-In” (2017), and “Black Bottom” (2020), commissioned by the Detroit Symphony in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Symphony Hall and Classical Roots. It tells the story of residents in the Detroit neighborhoods of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, which were destroyed in the mid-1950s.

Video: Nkeiru Okoye – “Black Bottom,” Detroit Symphony Orchestra
“Charlotte Mecklenburg”

Leading up to the 250th anniversary of the founding of Charlotte, NC in 2018, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra began searching for a composer to capture the essence of the city in a commissioned piece. Then-president and CEO Mary Deissler “wanted (to select) an outsider who’d come in without preconceptions” – and Nkeiru, a New Yorker with a track record of layered, deeply meaningful work, fit the bill.

The commission came with one special request: the music was to be inspired by a residency in the city, meaning that Nkeiru could not begin writing or visualizing the piece until she had experienced it firsthand. In June of 2018, Nkeiru packed a cultural and historical “crash course” into just five days, interviewing cultural leaders, meeting with orchestra members, sampling the city’s food, and taking in local exhibitions.

The result was “Charlotte Mecklenburg” – a “12-minute tapestry” of richly intertwined influences, including Charlotte’s cotton mills, the city’s racial and economic unrest, and a version of the song “Alma Llanera” in honor of the area’s Latinx community. Inspired by a conversation with music producer Dae-Lee, Nkeiru incorporated percussive phrases that reflect the words “Not my Charlotte” and “Keith Lamont Scott,” a local man killed in a police shooting in 2016. 

The Charlotte Symphony debuted “Charlotte Mecklenburg” on September 21, 2018 at the symphony’s annual gala concert. The audience included students from Project Harmony, the CSO’s after-school intensive instruction program for underserved Charlotte area children. “Her existing in this space as a Black female composer is meaningful,” Dae-Lee remarked, “Kids can look at her onstage and say, ‘Oh my goodness, I want to aspire to be there!’ That really opens up your perspective.”

Building a Legacy 

Among her numerous achievements, Nkeiru has received commissions, awards, and honors from the NEA, Opera America, American Opera Projects, Meet The Composer, John Duffy Composer Institute, Composer’s Collaborative, Inc., and the Walt Whitman Project and is the recipient of three grants for female composers from the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation. She is a current board member of Composers Now and has been profiled in several academic texts, including Routledge’s “African American Music: An Introduction.”

“My music doesn’t easily fit into a single category, though I incorporate many musical influences in a way that creates a sound that is uniquely mine. I think a lot of people are surprised to hear connections between the gospel aria and the jazz aria in Harriet Tubman. Similarly, there’s a pop song in the middle of Voices Shouting Out, along with some funk and a tone row – and it’s my most performed orchestral piece,” Nkeiru writes of her composition style on her website.

“Over the years, I’ve found myself using techniques that seemed ‘avant garde’ to me when first receiving training in composition. At the time, I could not imagine putting those elements into practice. Now, I use them in ways that work for me. It’s surprising to see how well Schoenberg and funk can sit side by side at the symphony.”

Video: Nkeiru Okoye, “I am Harriet Tubman, Free Woman” performed by Janinah Burnett
Artist’s Soundcloud

Nkeiru’s Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/nkeiruokoye/sets/nkeirus-music

Sources and Further Reading

Nkeiru Okoye: Composer (Official Website)

Nkeiru Okoye: Voices Shouting Out (Performance Today)

Is this how it was with Mozart?” (The Baltimore Sun)

SUNY New Paltz professor’s opera hails historical figure” (Times Herald-Record)

Actor Glover takes the lead in RU student’s premiere” (The Central New Jersey Home News)

The world of women in classical music (Anne Gray, 2007)

The Flight of a New Festival” (Charleston Today)

Family Concert: The Journey of Phillis Wheatley” (Cambridge Symphony Orchestra)

DSO to debut musical work inspired by Black Bottom, Paradise Valley neighborhoods” (Detroit Free Press)

250 years in 12 minutes? Composer tries to capture Charlotte history in piece for Symphony” (Charlotte Observer)

Nkeiru Okoye on Composing Charlotte Mecklenburg” (Charlotte Symphony)

A magnificent opera about a magnificent woman” (Hyde Park Herald)

Local, Virtual, Classical: 5 Online Events to Enjoy This Week

By Mary Lathem

We’re not leaving our houses as much these days, but when great classical music and educational opportunities are a click away, there’s no need to distance ourselves from the regional arts and culture scene. Mark your calendars and settle in for the top 5 virtual events we’re looking forward to this week. 

1. DavidsonLearns’ “Living Room Learning” Series: Dive into Chamber Music

Wednesday, July 29, 4:30 p.m. ET

WDAV and DavidsonLearns are teaming up to present a special installment of the “Living Room Learning” Series: Deep Dive into Chamber Music. Watch a trio of stellar performances from our Young Chamber Musicians Competition at this link before the event, then join a free Zoom discussion with Davidson College Music professor Mauro Botelho.

2. The Brevard Music Center’s Janiec Opera Company presents Zoom Speed Dating Tonight!

Saturday, July 25, 8:00 p.m. ET

The Janiec Opera Company of the Brevard Music Center premiered Michael Ching’s opera Speed Dating Tonight! in 2013 – and now the company is sharing a new version updated for the Zoom era. Conceived and created by Dean Anthony, the virtual production of Zoom Speed Dating Tonight! features 56 alumni performers alongside special guests Carolina Worra and Reginald Smith, Jr., with several other alumni contributing to video production and editing. Learn more about the show and how to watch at this link

Find more online offerings from the Brevard Music Center Summer Festival here. 

3. Eastern Music Festival’s Behind the Baton

Fridays, July 24 and 31, 1:00 p.m. ET

The 59th season of the Eastern Music Festival has shifted to an online format and continues to provide opportunities for musical enrichment throughout the month of July. Each Friday during the festival, music director Gerard Schwarz hosts “Behind the Baton” conversations with EMF faculty artists offering insights on past performances. These events and more are accessible live via the Eastern Music Festival’s Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube channels. 

Find more online offerings from the Eastern Music Festival here

4. An Appalachian Summer Festival: Emerson String Quartet

Sunday, July 26, 2:00 p.m. ET

After hosting an online event nearly every day in July, An Appalachian Summer Festival in Boone is wrapping up their virtual season with one more week of engaging arts and culture. This Sunday, the Emerson String Quartet will join AASF for a Q&A session and preview their scheduled appearance as part of the 2021 season via YouTube Live

Find more online offerings from An Appalachian Summer Festival here

5. CSO al Fresco: Brass

Wednesday, July 29, 7:30 p.m. ET

Charlotte Symphony al Fresco is a new, free virtual concert series featuring CSO musicians. Every Wednesday, principal cellist Alan Black has hosted performances from his backyard in Charlotte, where guests from the CSO perform a variety of works and provide a glimpse into their lives as performing musicians. Featuring a quintet of CSO brass players, the final CSO al Fresco concert can be accessed via Facebook and YouTube Live

Find more digital content from #CSOAtHome here

From Our Blog: Summer Festivals Play On(line)
More information about local, virtual events can be found at WDAV’s Events Calendar.

Classically Trained: Rhiannon Giddens

Pictured: Rhiannon Giddens By Schorle – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.

By Mary Lathem

Discover something new today! This series explores the lives and contributions of classical artists with connections to the Carolinas. Intended as quick “brain breaks” for learners of all ages, these educational features can be divided into sections for daily reading or used as lesson plans for students at home.


Rhiannon Giddens

Singer and multi-instrumentalist

FUN FACT: During her graduate studies at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, Rhiannon took on the title role in Carlisle Floyd’s opera Susannah. She also convinced the director to let her choreograph the square dance sequence – thanks to her extensive background in square dance teaching and calling.

Video: Rhiannon Giddens: Tiny Desk (Home) Concert
A Natural Talent

Simply put, North Carolina-raised musician Rhiannon Giddens is one of a kind. In an interview with Our State magazine, Rhiannon’s mother recalled the earliest hints of her remarkable ability: “She was always singing… she had a wonderful voice really early on.” Though she didn’t yet dream of a career in music, her voice came in handy as she pursued childhood hobbies, singing in the Greensboro Youth Chorus and harmonizing with her father and sister. 

It wasn’t until an audition for a spot at the Governor’s School of North Carolina at 17 – which left a panel of choral teachers in awe – that Rhiannon realized how rare her talent truly was. She went on to earn a Bachelor’s degree in Voice from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and pursued graduate studies in Opera at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.

Finding the Carolina Chocolate Drops

Rhiannon’s first brush with a career in folk music came by accident while studying at Oberlin. Expecting a country dance à la Jane Austen, she attended a contra dancing event after misreading a flyer – and immediately fell in love. Burned out on opera and frustrated with her voice after a grueling five years at Oberlin, Rhiannon returned to Greensboro, where she picked up contra dancing again and began to travel the state calling dances. 

Soon, Rhiannon was well on her way to becoming a multi-instrumentalist. “I loved the banjo sounds I’d hear at the dances, so I learned to play,” Rhiannon recalled in an interview with Oberlin Alumni Magazine. “Got a second job to buy a banjo, singing opera arias at a Macaroni Grill. I quit as soon as I bought the banjo.” While attending the 2005 Black Banjo Then & Now Gathering in Boone, NC, Rhiannon hit it off with fellow musicians Don Flemons and Justin Robinson. Soon after, the new trio formed the first lineup of the Carolina Chocolate Drops

“There’s something very special and warm and exquisite about her voice. It has its own beauty, no matter the style… so it came as no surprise when she went off in this other direction and was equally magnificent at it.”

Marlene Rosen, Oberlin Conservatory Professor of Singing

Through meticulous research and practice, the Chocolate Drops set out to prove that the “old-time, fiddle and banjo-based music” they loved “could be a living, breathing, ever-evolving sound” and shine a spotlight on African-Americans’ crucial role in developing America’s popular music. In an interview with NPR, Rhiannon explained, “It seems that two things get left out of the history books. One, that there was string band music in the Piedmont (region of the Carolinas), period… (and that) Black folk was such a huge part of string tradition.” Described as “the most electrifying acoustic act around,” the Chocolate Drops received the 2011 Best Traditional Folk Album GRAMMY Award for Genuine Negro Jig. 

Video: Carolina Chocolate Drops TEDx
Branching Out

Though Rhiannon is still an active member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, her solo career has grown by leaps and bounds over the last decade. Little known outside of the folk circuit, Rhiannon was invited to participate in the star-studded 2013 “Another Day, Another Time” concert in New York City – and received the only standing ovation of the night. Shortly after, she contributed to two projects that earned significant attention: the 2013 LP We Are Not For Sale: Songs of Protest (a compilation of songs from North Carolina activist musicians) and the 2014 Bob Dylan collective Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes. 

Rhiannon’s solo debut album, Tomorrow is My Turn, was released in 2015 to universal acclaim; one reviewer correctly identified it as “an album that heralds the arrival of a major American artist.” What followed was nothing short of a banner year: in 2016, Rhiannon was selected as the Folk Singer of the Year at the BBC Radio 2 Folk awards (the first American to achieve the distinction), received the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass (the first woman and person of color to be honored), and was inducted into the North Carolina Hall of Fame with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Rhiannon has since released two studio albums, Freedom Highway (2017) and There is No Other (2019), and numerous singles and EPs. 

In 2016, a missed opportunity gave way to an unexpected new path. Scheduled to replace Audra McDonald in the Broadway’s Shuffle Along, she poured herself into months of training and dance lessons, only to have the production close before she could make her debut. A few days later, Rhiannon was asked to join the cast of the TV show Nashville, an unforeseen chance that she asserts “saved (her) life.” Since 2018, Rhiannon has hosted the WQXR podcast Aria Code, which “pulls back the curtain on some of the most famous arias in opera history.”

Acclaim and Recent Projects

In addition to the Chocolate Drops’ 2011 GRAMMY Award, Rhiannon is also a two-time recipient of the International Folk Music Award for Album of the Year, Blues Artist of the Year at the 2017 Living Blues Awards, and the 2019 Americana Music Honors & Awards Legacy of Americana Award. In 2017, she was named a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, an extraordinary honor for exceptional individuals in any field. 

Though her career isn’t typical of an opera student, Rhiannon still makes time to explore her classical background. “I play banjo for a living and sing opera for fun,” she once remarked, “It’s a weird world. My banjo pays for my health insurance. Who knew?” Most recently, Rhiannon was engaged to perform the title role in a Greensboro Opera production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, now postponed to January 2022. In another stunning turn, Rhiannon was commissioned to premiere an original opera, Omar, at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC. The opera, which will premiere as part of the 2021 season, is based on the autobiography of Omar Ibn Said, a Muslim-African man who was brought to Charleston and enslaved in 1807. 

For anyone wondering if there’s anything Rhiannon can’t do – the answer is “not yet.” 

Spotify Playlist
  1. “Hit ‘Em Up Style,” Carolina Chocolate Drops – Genuine Negro Jig (2010)
  2. “Cornbread and Butterbeans,” Carolina Chocolate Drops – Genuine Negro Jig (2010)
  3. “Grioghal Cridhe,” Rhiannon Giddens and The Elftones – All the Pretty Horses (2009)
  4. “We Rise,” Rhiannon Giddens – We Are Not For Sale: Songs of Protest (2013)
  5. “Spanish Mary,” Rhiannon Giddens – Lost on the River (2014)
  6. “Shake Sugaree,” Rhiannon Giddens – Tomorrow is My Turn (2015)
  7. “Freedom Highway,” Rhiannon Giddens – Freedom Highway (2017)
  8. “Trees on the Mountain,” Rhiannon Giddens – There is No Other (2019)
  9. “I’m On My Way,” Rhiannon Giddens – There is No Other (2019)
Sources and Further Reading

Rhiannon Giddens Official Website

Carolina Chocolate Drops Official Website

Rhiannon Giddens Returns Home for Founders Day Concert (UNCG)

Rhiannon Giddens & The Making Of NC’s Most Beautiful Voice (Our State Magazine)

Creating Old-Time Music for the 21st Century (Oberlin Alumni Magazine)

Rhiannon Giddens and What Folk Music Means (The New Yorker)

Carolina Chocolate Drops Keep Piedmont Sounds Alive (NPR)

5 Memorable Moments From The ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ Concert (The Huffington Post)

Folk polymath Rhiannon Giddens honors the musical cultures of the oppressed (Reader)

Rhiannon Giddens: Tomorrow Is My Turn (PopMatters)

Rhiannon Giddens Lost Her Broadway Break But Gained Nashville (Vulture)

Welcome to Aria Code with Rhiannon Giddens (WQXR)

Opera starring Rhiannon Giddens postponed to January 2022 (Greensboro News & Record)

Making an Opera: Meet the Composer, Rhiannon Giddens (Spoleto Festival USA)

LA Phil Hosts the YOLA National at Home Series

The Los Angeles Philharmonic Association presents YOLA National at Home, a series of courses, masterclasses, project-based learning from July 10-31, 2020. The virtual conference offers an in-depth look into the musicians that are dedicating their lives to classical music. There are several tracks for musicians, teachers, parents, and supporters to watch and interact.

The Young Artist series offers youth-centered content for young musicians, including a session with practical advice on how to prep for an audition and navigating the college admissions process. 

The Exploring Pathways series offers a set of conversations with artists and professionals discussing their origin stories, education, and career development. The panels are hosted by Alex Laing, principal clarinet at the Phoenix Symphony, and Dalanie Harris and Katie Brown, from the acclaimed Classically Black podcast. Interviews center Black and Latino voices within classical music to give voice to their musical journey. Guests include Monica Ellis, bassoonist from Imani Winds; Clifton Joey Guidry III, bassoonist; Am’re Ford, composer, and UNC-Greensboro alumnus; and Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA) alumni. 

Sessions are being recorded and available through the YOLA National at Home website.

Photo credit: Paul Cressey/L.A. Philharmonic.

The journey that saved Beethoven’s life

By Lawrence Toppman

Had Beethoven killed himself in October 1802, he’d be known today as a fairly talented composer of unfulfilled promise – someone on the level of, say, Carl Maria von Weber or C.P.E. Bach.

At 31, he’d premiered one jaunty symphony in the style of late Haydn or Mozart, two amiable piano concertos, a few attractive sonatas for violin and piano and more impressive ones for piano alone, including the “Moonlight” and “Pathetique.” He’d shown only flickerings of the astonishing talent that would emerge over the next decade.

He went that autumn to Heiligenstadt, a resort about a one-hour carriage ride from the center of Vienna, with a troubled mind. He realized his oncoming deafness, which already affected his performances as a piano virtuoso and conductor, would eventually plunge him into silence. He often suffered agonizing headaches and stomach pains and doubted whether he could stand another 30 or 40 years of life under those conditions.

Beethoven poured his thoughts into a document written over two sessions to his brothers, Carl and Johann. The Heiligenstadt Testament, as we now call it, starts with a plea for understanding: “O ye men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do ye wrong me, you do not know the secret causes of my seeming, from childhood my heart and mind were disposed to the gentle feelings of good will.”

He confesses feelings of humiliation, profound loneliness, rage, terror. He flirts with the idea of dying, at God’s hand or his own. Yet his indomitable will keeps him going: “But little more and I would have put an end to my life – only art it was that withheld me, ah it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce, and so I endured this wretched existence…. Patience – it is said that I must now choose for my guide. I have done so.”

In the following year, he triumphed with works of extraordinary emotional depth and musical daring: The tempestuous “Waldstein” piano sonata, the soaring “Kreutzer” violin sonata, his only minor-key piano concerto (No. 3) and the “Eroica” Symphony, his third and the most revolutionary symphony in history. Neither Beethoven nor his compositions would ever be the same after that dark night of the soul.