Rhiannon Giddens with Columbus’ ProMusica Chamber Orchestra

Kristopher Weiss on January 20, 2023
Rhiannon Giddens with Columbus’ ProMusica Chamber Orchestra

“I’m a lot of fun at parties,” Rhiannon Giddens said from the stage of Columbus, Ohio’s, Southern Theatre.

The self-deprecating remark came after a string of socially conscious numbers—“Birmingham Sunday,” Nina’s Simone’s “Tomorrow is my Turn” and “Factory Girl”—that Giddens performed Jan. 19 with the 40-piece ProMusica Chamber Orchestra as part of its annual Soiree fundraiser, back after a three-year pandemic-related hiatus.

As if to prove the point, the second of two sets—110 minutes in all—ended with “Pretty Girl with the Blue Dress On” as Giddens danced a jig at the side of the stage and lifted her red-and-black, floor-length skirt slightly to reveal her bare feet. She danced. The orchestra played. And when it ended, the sold-out house stood and begged for an encore.

Giddens and conductor David Danzmayr ran off and on stage, taking repeated bows. But they were out of songs. After three or four minutes, the house lights came up, the audience quieted and then dispersed.

Taking the stage after ProMusica’s overture to “Barber of Seville,” Giddens launched into Bob Dylan’s “Spanish Mary,” an abandoned song she cut for 2014’s The New Basement Tapes. Dylan’s scraps, she said, are anyone else’s masterpiece and his lyrics summed up the spiritual and secular sides of the evening’s presentation as Giddens sang:

“Beggar man beggar man/tell me no lie/is it a mystery to live/or is it a mystery to die?”

With arrangements by Punch Brother Gabe Witcher (who was not present), Giddens performed originals like “At the Purchaser’s Option,” traditional numbers like “Round about the Mountain,” the Dylan and Simone covers and melodies borrowed from as far back as the 17th century, as appended to her own “Build a House,” originally recorded with Yo-Yo Ma.

Forty instrumentalists—including bassist Jason Sypher and Francesco Turrisi on percussion, cello banjo and accordion—and Giddens’ own mouth trumpet, banjo and fiddle playing notwithstanding, her voice was the star attraction. At turns operatic, wailing blues, sultry sweet and as powerful as a tornado, Giddens’ instrument is a natural wonder as she sung mostly in English, but also in Gaelic on “Mouth Music.” When she, Turrisi and Sypher took occasional spotlights as an instrumental trio, Giddens scatted wordlessly and left agog orchestra members looking as mesmerized as the paying audience.

Talkative and smiling between songs, Giddens turned intense as the music unfolded. She contorted her face to accentuate words; stared off into a universe only she could see; and occasionally seemed moved to near tears. But there was always humor, such as when she jabbed at Turrisi, her partner in life as well as music.

“What’s perfect pitch?,” she said as he strapped on a squeezebox. “Tossing the banjo in the trash and hitting the accordion.”