As the ice melts and flowers begin to bloom, the North Carolina Symphony welcomed the almost-Spring season by teaming up with Rhiannon Giddens and the traditional yet unique sounds of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. On March 14, at Meymandi Concert Hall, in the heart of the capital city, the NCS, under the baton of Maestro Grant Llewellyn, explored the history of American minstrel music. Rhiannon Giddens and the Carolina Chocolate Drops are no strangers to this historic genre and have been delivering fresh interpretations of traditional string sounds to audiences since 2005.

The evening began with a European interpretation of minstrel music with Suite No. 3 of Ottorino Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances. Maestro Llewellyn then welcomed the Carolina Chocolate Drops to the stage for their adaptations of traditional American minstrel music. Along with the talented cellist Malcolm Parson and multi-instrumentalist Rowan Corbett, Giddens performed her adaptations and original lyrics to several American minstrel tunes: “Cornshucking Jig/Camptown Hornpipe,” “Better Git Yer Learnin’,” and “Julie/Kick Up de Debble on a Holiday.” After exploring two very different interpretations of early minstrel music, the orchestra closed the first half of their program with an eclectic blend of the musical elements presented with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Symphonic Variations on an African Air, Op. 63. An English composer, born to an English mother and Sierra-Leonean father, Coleridge-Taylor explored his blended heritage in compositions like these Symphonic Variations, a composition for orchestra based on the African-American spiritual “I’m Troubled in Mind.” After intermission, the NCS revisited African-American adaptations of folksongs for Broadway with  Giddens. These three pieces, by Will Marion Cook, marked a momentous milestone for Broadway as the first African-American compositions to be performed on stage by all African-American cast. In their closing number, the members of the NCS followed this vein of influential African American composers with the first-ever symphony composed by an African American; the Afro-American Symphony by William Grant Still.

From the first note to the evening’s final ovation, the NC Symphony and Rhiannon Giddens delivered a diverse and culturally significant program. Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances introduced the performance with a strings-only composition reminiscent of early European lute music. As the violins carried the lilting melody, the cellos preserved the essence of the lute with light plucking throughout. The Carolina Chocolate Drops introduced a completely different interpretation of minstrel music with their adaptations of American banjo tunes. Giddens explained that, as the banjo was traditionally considered a “Black” community instrument, the original compositions were passed down to early generations of African-American musicians by word of mouth. When white composers transcribed the tunes to paper, the banjo was taken up by white musicians in blackface, performing caricatures of the original musicians for all-white audiences. Giddens and the Chocolate Drops have reclaimed the works with original lyrics honoring the African-American heritage and unique explorations of traditional instrumentation with the banjo, cello, and bones. Giddens was unassuming in a traditional grey frock as she demonstrated absolute mastery of the banjo, retuning her instrument for almost every song. Malcolm Parson grounded the trio with the deeps sounds of his cello while Rowan Corbett seemed to tap dance with his hands on the traditional bones, sometimes considered castanets of the minstrel era. The minstrel arrangements performed by the trio marked the stand-out performances of the evening. The first half of the program closed with Coleridge-Taylor’s Symphonic Variations, described as a meeting of the composer’s African and English heritages with strong influence from the African-American culture. Patrons of this concert heard that influence as rich strains from the trombone reminisces on the strong voices of African spirituals. With brassy sounds and militaristic percussion throughout, Symphonic Variations is less African and much more American.

The second half of the performance opened with Giddens flexing her versatility as a coloratura soprano. Resplendent in a sapphire evening gown, she dazzled the audience with Broadway tunes by African-American composer Will Marion Cook, arranged specifically for the occasion by Aaron Grad, who was in attendance for the performance. The conclusion of the set (the jaunty “Rain Song,” the melodic and bittersweet “Wid de Moon, Moon, Moon,” and the robust “Swing Along”) was met by a standing ovation from the appreciative audience. And then the final composition portrayed a union of elements from each of the evening’s section – a classical symphony born from the African-American perspective. Each movement – “Longing,” “Sorrow,” “Humor,” and “Aspiration” – began with a verse, read by Gibbons, from African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, to set the scene for the upcoming music. Composer William Grant Still stated the composition was intended to elevate blues music to the highest expression in symphonic presentation. The recurring blues theme evolves throughout each movement until its culmination in “Aspiration,” in which the majestic melody swells to a proud finale of triumph and resignation to rise.

Rhiannon Giddens and the Carolina Chocolate Drops perform for one more night with the North Carolina Symphony, on March 15th at Meymandi Concert Hall at 8:00 p,m. For details, see the sidebar.