Review: Rhapsody in Bluegrass

Nashville Symphony
Art Now Nashville

By John Pitcher

Béla Fleck’s new Concerto for Banjo and Orchestra is without question the finest banjo concerto I’ve ever heard. Well, to be completely honest, it’s also the only one I’ve ever experienced. But that actually says a lot about Fleck’s accomplishment, because he essentially had to invent this new genre from scratch.

Nashville’s preeminent banjo virtuoso was at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center on Thursday night, presenting the world premiere of his new concerto with music director Giancarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. The concert proved to be historic for a couple reasons.

For starters, it was the first NSO performance streamed live over the orchestra’s website. Guerrero mentioned the streaming at the start of Thursday’s concert, and his announcement elicited a roar of civic pride from the near-capacity crowd. This weekend’s classical subscription program also launches an ambitious 2011-12 season that will include three important world premieres and a trip to Carnegie Hall.
 Fleck’s new concerto sets a high bar for this year’s other world-premiere works. His piece is loaded with entertaining pyrotechnics. It’s also remarkably original. In interviews, Fleck has admitted to having few models for this concerto. He found some ephemera – a concerto from the 1960s written for Pete Seeger and a concerto by a Swiss banjo player named Jens Kruger. Peter Schickele also composed a farcical piece under his nom de guerre P.D.Q. Bach. But that was it.

So Fleck had to invent his own template. What he came up with is a substantial work that’s arranged in three movements and that lasts about a half hour. Thursday’s performance revealed many strong qualities. The writing for banjo, not surprisingly, was beautifully idiomatic and breathtakingly virtuosic. Melodies were plentiful and appealing. And the score included some gorgeous exchanges between banjo and solo violin.

There were also some weaknesses. In some places, the orchestration sounded more like band music to my ear than a symphonic score. Fleck also had the tendency of stringing disparate ideas together instead of developing them (although I should note that George Gershwin often did the same thing).  That said, Fleck’s orchestra textures were mostly well crafted – the banjo was never in any danger of being overwhelmed – and each section flowed smoothly into the next.

Fleck is known in the instrumental world for having pioneered a fusion of bluegrass and jazz that’s referred to as blu-bop. His concerto seemed more like a fusion of classical, bluegrass and swing. The results of that mix were surprising.

In the first two movements, the banjo’s telltale twang was often replaced with a sound that was surprisingly bright and expressive, almost like a lute. The traditional bluegrass style, with its familiar fast duple-meter playing, only came to the fore in the third movement. But even in the finale, pure bluegrass playing was fleeting. Fleck was careful to avoid cliché.

Certainly, Fleck could not have hoped for a better performance. His own playing in the fast outer movements was dazzling – the blistering speed with which he played the third-movement cadenza seemed to push the envelope on human ability and endurance. He performed the slow second movement with great sensitivity.

Guerrero and the NSO deserve special mention for their virtuoso performance. Fleck showed no mercy in writing for the orchestra, especially the string section, which often had to play at Fleck’s own blazing tempos. The orchestra matched the banjo’s velocity. They also provided Fleck with flexible, colorful accompaniment.

Fleck dedicated the concerto to his hero, banjo legend Earl Scruggs, who was in the audience Thursday night. Scruggs received an ovation from the audience, and Fleck played Scruggs’ “Beverly Hillbillies Theme” as an encore.

Thursday’s concert opened with Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Guerrero’s interpretation emphasized the tenderness and austere serenity of this music. His tempos were always sensible, and his dynamics were never extreme. He took due care to highlight the variety of textures and timbers in this score – there was clarity in every section of the orchestra. He was even more careful to conduct with precision, since this all-too-familiar and appealing piece comes loaded with a minefield of changing meters.

The Fleck concerto may have been the evening’s historic event, but the highlight of the concert for me was Guerrero’s bracing account of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36. His interpretation struck me as being very appropriately Russian. The passions were feverish, the melancholy was urgent and the climaxes were earth shattering. Memorable moments included the elegantly sculpted oboe solo at the beginning of the second movement, and the rapid-fire pizzicato string playing in the scherzo.

In all, it was an amazing evening of music that could only have happened in Nashville. Where else, after all, would the juxtaposition of a banjo concerto and a Tchaikovsky symphony seem so natural, even inevitable? Lovers of adventurous music would do well to attend one of this weekend’s repeat performances.