Fleck and Nashville Symphony wow with World Premiere Banjo Concerto

Nashville Symphony
Nashville Festivals Examiner

By Chris Griffy

Tonight at the Schermerhorn Center in Nashville, banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck and the Nashville Symphony presented the World Premiere of Fleck's Concerto for Banjo and Orchestra, along with selections from Tchaikovsky and Copland.

The banjo is an instrument most often associated with Bluegrass music or reruns of Hee Haw, but Bela Fleck has never been one to color inside those lines.  He has shown the banjo to be a masterful Jazz instrument with his band Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, and he has even explored the banjo's African roots on a collaboration album with Toumani Diabate.  Tonight, with some help from the Nashville Symphony, who commissioned Fleck to compose the Concerto, he took the banjo to even greater heights, as a solo instrument in a full Symphony.

Fleck's 33 minute Concerto for Banjo and Symphony is a revelation.  Fleck's deft banjo technique worked well as a soloist for the Symphony.  Oddly, it was the rare times when Fleck's banjo got lost in the orchestra that the Concerto worked best.  When playing as just a member of the Symphony rather than a soloist, Fleck did his best work at proving the banjo belongs with the Classical instruments.  Often times the banjo got lost, blending in so well that it just became a seamless part of the piece rather than a solo instrument.  Just as you don't hear and individual violinist or cellist, the banjo just added to the sum of the piece.

Fleck's Concerto for Banjo and Symphony was dedicated to banjo legend Earl Scruggs, who was in attendance at the World Premiere and who got the loudest and longest standing ovation from the concert goers.  Fleck encored his performance with some improvisational riffing on Scruggs' most famous work, the theme to the hit sitcom Beverly Hillbillies and when he finished the entire audience as one turned away from the stage and applauded not Fleck, but Scruggs.  It was one of those rare special moments that you don't see often and Fleck, standing and applauding as well, obviously approved of the redirected adoration.

But Fleck wasn't the only all star on this night.  Bookending the Concerto for Banjo and Symphony were two pieces performed to perfection by the Nashville Symphony.  Aaron Copland's Suite from Appalachian Spring showed the Symphony's range and the show closer, Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36 was a real treat for both ears and eyes as the Symphony swelled and soared, crashed and cruised with the master composer's works.  Conductor Giancarlo Guerrero kept the crowd well entertained with his frantic movements, jumping around and waving his arms like a madman during the piece's rousing finale.

If you missed out on seeing Bela Fleck and the Nashville Symphony's World Premiere of Concerto for Banjo and Symphony, don't worry. You still have two more chances to see it as the entire show, including the Copland and Tchaikovsky pieces, will be performed again on Friday night and Saturday night at 8:00 PM.  Tickets can be obtained through the Nashville Symphony's website.