Ayo // Photo: courtesy of Strathmore

Fresh AIR: Up-and-Coming Artists Bring Cross-Genre Sounds to Strathmore

November 20 marks the debut of six budding DC area musicians in their new roles as Strathmore Artists in Residence (AIR), taking the AMP by Strathmore stage with their mentors for a cross-genre performance. From percussionist-composer hybrids to jazz violinists, the diverse 2020 AIR were hand-selected by the North Bethesda-based arts center to provide an opportunity for them to perform, create and teach workshops, and jumpstart their professional careers.

As far as AIR director Betty Scott is concerned, there is no other program like it.

“A lot of organizations have artists in residence,” Scott says. “[They are] usually established artists who come in for a couple of weeks and work with a class or community. But in this case, [artists] are with us for an academic year and we give them education, nurturing and networking. It’s very different in that regard.”

After working as an elementary music teacher for 40 years, Scott decided retirement wasn’t for her. Her second career began with volunteering weekly at Strathmore, and ultimately led to the development of the center’s AIR program. After 15 years and 88 participants, the program has become a revered feature of the reputable space.

AIR’s 2020 class will bring a range of genres to AMP – Strathmore’s music and dining offshoot – this month, spanning pop, jazz and folk among others. Their Fresh AIR show will provide concertgoers with a hint of what’s to come at their future performances and workshops over the next 10 months.

“We do a full-band cover song to start and end the concert,” Scott says of the show’s format. “Each mentor and each AIR have to choose a piece they think is indicative of what people should expect to hear from them in future concerts.”

Pop vocalist Ayo, who will perform Fugees classic “Killing Me Softly” at the concert, credits several pop icons as her major influences.

“I love Stevie Wonder’s songwriting style and how he tells stories,” she says. “Sarah Vaughan and Whitney Houston, as vocalists, know how to really paint a picture with their voices.”

In addition to her impressive vocal range, Ayo uses her music to process difficult moments from life while empowering others to do the same. After releasing a song detailing her experience with sexual assault, men and women began reaching out to her, inspired to share their own stories.

“These are people that I have known for years,” she continues. “But I wouldn’t have known that they had gone through that until they reached out to me and said, ‘I didn’t know that someone like you went through this. Thank you for sharing. Because you shared this, I want to share my story.’”

During her Strathmore residency, Ayo will teach the workshop “Songs from the Heart: Storytelling through Songwriting.” She plans to continue encouraging people to share their stories.

“[I know I] have a story to tell and people need to hear it, so they know they’re not alone in what they’re going through.”

Her AIR classmate, early folk instrumentalist Niccolo Seligmann, has been fascinated with unique instruments since age five. After seeing a viola da gamba played in concert, he knew it was the instrument for him. Eight years of cello lessons later and Seligmann finally got the viola de gamba he’d been waiting for. Now, the Johns Hopkins’ Peabody Institute graduate plays 20 instruments – including the medieval fiddle.

In keeping with the theme of his upcoming album, Kinship, his performances at Strathmore will be inspired by climate change and the ways humans interact with the environment, nature and animals. At the Fresh AIR concert, Seligmann will perform a 15th-century Italian ballo, or dance, called “Verçeppe.”

“I always think of [this dance] as the sounds of a big jungle cat prowling and pouncing,” he says.

His performance will feature triangles created by his father-in-law, who is a blacksmith. Seligmann likes to create his own instruments – but not in a traditional way that might be associated with early music. During his residency, he’s looking to blend his love for medieval music with the music he creates on his computer.

“Anything a computer can grab data from can be an instrument,” he notes.

Seligmann will be teaching a workshop called “Strings of Gut, Lines of Code: Early Music in Today’s World” that he hopes will “create a music environment that shows the best of both worlds.”

“The last song in the Fresh AIR concert is [Bob Dylan’s] ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’ [by Bob Dylan], and I think that’s really the theme of all of our music-making,” he adds. “All of us in the AIR program are doing some kind of new thing, whether it’s new to us personally in our practice or new to the world. We as artists are changing with the times.”

Don’t miss Seligmann, Ayo and their four classmates at the Fresh AIR concert on November 20 at AMP by Strathmore. Tickets are $19. Doors at 6:30 p.m. and show at 8 p.m. For more on the AIR class of 2020 and their upcoming performance schedule, go to www.strathmore.org. Learn more about Ayo at www.ayoofficial.com and Seligmann at www.niccoloseligmann.com.

AMP by Strathmore: 11810 Grand Park Ave. North Bethesda, MD; 301-581-5100; www.ampbystrathmore.com