Review: 'Phoenix Rising' Blends Musical Pollination, Pandemic Grief

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Saturday November 20, 2021

'Phoenix Rising'
'Phoenix Rising'  (Source:American Repertory Theater)

Yo-Yo Ma's idea in creating Silkroad (both the foundation and the music ensemble) was to foster cross-pollination of musical cultures and idioms, greeting a globalized future with optimism and artistic ambition.

The last two years, or the better part of them anyway, have left many of us feeling less than optimistic. But the Silkroad Ensemble (now led by Rhiannon Giddens, who recently took the reins as the group's artistic director) hasn't lost sight of its original objectives; if anything, their music and sense of creative energy is needed now more than ever.

Starting Nov. 19 and playing at the American Repertory Theater's Loeb Drama Center through Nov. 21, fifteen of the group's musicians, including Giddens herself on vocals, create a musical tapestry that weaves differing themes and styles into pieces that sometimes shimmer, sometimes confound, and sometimes move one with their sheer beauty and sense of surprise. (As a vocalist, Giddens prove equally adept in several traditions, from American soul to Indian raga, the latter in a composition built around a poem by Tagore.)

On a stage littered with everything from xylophones to bass and cello to a banjo — not to mention more exotic instruments; one looks like a kamanche, and there were several sorts of drums, including tabla — the musicians engage in sweeping auditory paintings, astonishing percussive duets, and, at one point, what feels like a debate between a violin and a cello that transforms when the two instruments dovetail into a single expression of melodic concordance.

At other junctures, the compositions take on a romantic, perhaps too-familiar quality; you could be watching a big-screen Hollywood film and the music would be right at home. Occasionally, though, things get more challenging — more modern, if you will — with melodic shapes that constantly shift and transform.

'Phoenix Rising'
'Phoenix Rising'  (Source: American Repertory Theater)

Musically, the artists are working with a varied palette, and they aren't afraid to let their colors clash on the way to some new and striking form of expression; the lighting scheme bears this out, with cool blues matching hypnotic vocals in one piece, only for a vivid orange light to usher in a brisk mid-tempo followup that sweeps the room's mood to a higher, more energetic level. Projections on the back wall illustrate the emotional place from which the artists are working, especially during several spoken-word entr'actes that consist of pandemic-inspired ruminations following themes of tragedy, isolation, a sense of disorientation around time, and the difficulty of re-engaging with the world after long periods of isolation. Interpretive dance accompanies these sections, and while there's plenty of artistry on display — and the pieces certainly fit the show's overall themes — these passages lack a certain musicality that would have allowed them to fit and flow more naturally in the context of the overall program.

Quibbles aside, "Phoenix Rising" lives up to its name: We lift ourselves from ashes, from grief, and from uncertainty into a future that's far from secure... but very much open to the transformative power of the arts.

"Phoenix Rising" continues through Nov. 21. For tickets and more information go to

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.