Review: Bela Fleck's Concerto for Banjo and Orchestra

Nashville Symphony
No Depression

By Dustin Ogdin

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing Bela Fleck’s Concerto for Banjo and Orchestra with the Nashville Symphony. Overall, the largest impression I was left with is that Bela Fleck is a raging, benevolent maniac. His virtuosity as a banjo player is unrivaled, and the concerto allowed an opportunity to showcase his abilities within a symphonic world of his own creation. The piece was a tour de force of musical intelligence, wit, and restless creativity. Of course, these are the impressions of a roots music blogger with a limited knowledge of traditional classical music. However, this piece of music was penned by an artist whose background includes an obsessive emersion in roots music from across the globe (not to mention his study of more formal music genres.) The diversity of Fleck’s career was on full display within the concerto, which swung wildly but gracefully between his vast influences. The composer says the piece was intended to “explore the new possibilities of the banjo as a member of the orchestra, while respecting its roots in bluegrass and jazz.”

The concerto was groundbreaking in many respects. First and foremost, this is the first major piece of orchestral music composed solely by and for a banjoist. In the past, Fleck has co-written classical pieces in tandem with the venerable double bassist, Edgar Meyer. However, the multiple Grammy winner admits that he relied heavily on Meyer to flesh out the orchestral arrangements of those pieces and wanted to challenge himself to write an orchestral work as the sole composer. The concerto was commissioned by the Nashville Symphony, and Fleck spent the better part of a year composing the piece. He dedicates the concerto to banjo icon and bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs whose “Ballad Of Jed Clampett” from The Beverly Hillbillies mesmerized him as a child and inspired him to take up the instrument.

A concerto is typically made up of three distinct movements or suites, and Concerto for Banjo and Orchestra follows that traditional template. The concerto itself, however, struck me as far from traditional in any other sense. Whenever the piece seemed to settle into familiar territory with respect to melody or harmonic structure, it would veer sharply into unexpected places of thoughtful dissonance or burst forth with surprising rhythmic shifts. I found myself in a constant state of heightened expectation throughout the piece, realizing I had no idea what might happen next.

The first movement, like the others to follow, began with the orchestra setting a foundation and stating a theme. Soon after, Fleck would introduce jaw-dropping solo banjo runs before the orchestra would come back in to accompany him. The piece began dark, brooding, and dramatic. Often the banjo would be flying through rapid fire, breathless melodies while the entire orchestra offered shifting counterpoint melodies as a whole. I found it sublime to watch a sea of arms and bows flowing from the string section in unison, percussively churning out musical waves atop which Fleck’s banjo would glide, dash, and dart. The movement settled into more gentle, lyrical passages at times, but a dark edge remained throughout.

The second movement began with a softer tone of longer, sustained notes from the orchestra and a more legato feel. However, stark shifts occurred with a dramatic percussion break reminding me that a banjo player’s mentality is equal parts percussion and melody. This movement in particular seemed to highlight the diversity of Fleck’s musical universe with its roving passages and terse transitions in tone.

The final movement, however, was by far my favorite of the evening. There was a time when the entire string section was laying down plucked, pizzicato punches underneath the composer’s banjo flights. I found this to be the most moving passage of the entire piece, and best suited to the inherent percussive nature of the banjo. This last movement also seemed most imbued with the spirit of American roots music, at times swinging with a strong jazz feel and offering a long solo clarinet run more indicative of early twentieth century New Orleans than eighteenth century Europe. Most impressive were two of Fleck’s solo credenzas, one of which involved such a wild barrage of notes that it seemed like pulsing tones of music and sound rather than individual notes plucked from a single instrument. The economy of motion employed by the artist was also amazing. To hear an almost unfathomable number of sounds come from a soloist who appeared so relaxed with fingers moving so fast they almost looked still was nothing short of amazing. It is like experiencing a rushing river, somehow serene despite being composed of thousands of urgent, endless currents. Another of his solos towards the end of the movement seemed to be a decidedly explicitly homage to Earl Scruggs, overtly reminiscent of Fleck’s childhood hero. I wonder if Mr. Scruggs ever dreamed as a young banjo picker in the hills of North Carolina that his revolutionary contributions to a traditional rural instrument would inspire other world class musicians to bring his influence to symphony halls full of tuxedos, evening gowns, and polished marble floors. Certainly, the audience of sophisticates expressed unabashed delight with Fleck’s transcendent Scruggs picking, as he received two standing ovations after the performance.

The first ovation came after the end of the last movement. Fleck returned to the stage to play a solo piece as an encore. He sat down with his 1937 mahogany Gibson and began playing a highly baroque piece of music full of ecstatic melodic runs. There was a vague familiarity to the piece despite its bizarre, idiosyncratic tendencies. Soon enough, it became clear as Fleck emphasized certain notes that he was playing an improvised version of "The Ballad of Jed Clamplett." The audience laughed in appreciation and his second standing ovation after the rendition was just as raucous and appreciative as the first. I don’t know if Mr. Scruggs was able to attend the concerto composed in his honor, but, if not, his spirit was certainly present throughout the night.