The GRAMMY Award-winning Silkroad Ensemble debuted their newest program, Uplifted Voices, at the Center for the Arts on January 29, launching their multi-year participation as a Mason Artist-in-Residence. Championing women and non-binary members of the Silkroad Ensemble, alongside special guest Tuscarora/Taíno musician Pura Fé, Uplifted Voices featured a musical tapestry connecting the sounds and rhythms of indigenous North America to the World. Silkroad’s radical cultural collaboration seeks to build bridges of understanding to combat fear and build a more hopeful and inclusive world.
Engagement began the moment concertgoers started arriving for the Uplifted Voices performance with an interactive video installation in the lobby of the Center for the Arts, introducing the individual Silkroad Ensemble members and their creative processes, and prompting interested audience members to reflect and write out on Post-It notes how they might use their own voices to inspire others, and stick the responses up on a community display wall.
Over the arc of their three-year residency, Silkroad artists will engage the community through a variety of events, classes, and discussions, and they led three such activities on Monday, January 30 with George Mason students, as well as Fairfax Academy Music and Technology high school students.
Students from the Dewberry Family School of Music, who study under Director of Strings June Huang, had the opportunity to participate in a masterclass with Silkroad cellist Karen Ouzounian and violinist Mazz Swift at the Center for the Arts. The class featured student cellist Megan Shin and violinists Annette Lee, Khoa Nguyen, and Ethan Walter. Dewberry School of Music alumna, pianist GaYoung Lee, accompanied the students. Each student received meaningful notes and advice from Silkroad’s Ouzounian and Swift, while simultaneously being able to perform in front of peers and observers.
Mason junior double majoring in Music (BA) and Math (BS) Ethan Walter said, “It was a privilege to take part in the masterclass… Receiving direct feedback from established professionals offered me new perspectives. They encouraged me to be more dramatic with my musical decisions and to emphasize the character changes within the music. Their insights on how to interpret the music provided strategies for addressing challenges… to expand my own perspective and problem-solving capabilities as I move through practicing my current violin repertoire.”
Following the masterclass, Silkroad’s special guest Pura Fé then joined Ouzounian and Swift for a class discussion in George Mason University’s Women and Gender Studies 100: “Global Representations of Women” course, taught by Prof. Holly Mason Badra, Associate Director of Mason’s Women and Gender Studies Program. Joined by around 30 Mason undergraduate students, each artist discussed their individual artistic journeys and experiences in the international music industry. In addition to a rousing discussion, the three musicians performed for the students, followed by a question-and-answer session.
Badra shared, “I'm so grateful that my students had the chance to spend time with the Silkroad artists. The performers talked about their varied experiences and trajectories in the arts related to gender and other aspects of their identities and backgrounds. The conversation was very fitting for what we are discussing in class. My students and I found the conversation and music incredibly moving and engaging. It felt intimate and special. Almost sacred.”
Concurrently that afternoon, three other Silkroad artists traveled to the Fairfax Academy of Communication and Performing Arts, part of the Fairfax County Public School system, where they worked with teacher Matthew Carlin’s Music and Technology high school students. Celtic harpist Maeve Gilchrist, pipa player Wu Man, and percussionist Haruka Fujii led a class discussion on music composition, and performed a few of their own original works, as well as an improvised composition from an idea one of the upperclassmen students created. Carlin noted that the artists “spread the passion, joy and musical interaction with our Fairfax Academy students… We are thrilled they could spend some time with us!”
Programming and Engagement Manager for Mason’s College of Visual and Performing Arts Victor Adebusola says Silkroad’s visit highlighted the value of extended programming, and what it can accomplish versus a one-off performance. “It’s impressive what a few days of engagement can do, and how transformative it is for the artists, students, faculty, and audience involved. It can sometimes even be most eye-opening for the artists themselves, realizing ‘here are the many ways that I didn’t even realize my art could impact different parts of the community.’”
He also points out that “Silkroad is a perfect example of how the diversity of our programming can tap into different communities.” Not only were there musical connections made, but “we were able to involve the Women and Gender Studies Program, and have Mazz Swift, who is non-binary, talk through their gender journey and neurodiversity. There’s power in these programming choices; we can pull in and collaborate with so many different communities.”
Silkroad Ensemble will return for the Center for the Arts’ 2023/2024 and 2024/2025 seasons. Learn more about the Mason Artist-in-Residence program.