LIVE: The Philadelphia Orchestra with Bela Fleck @ SPAC, 8/21/13

Review by Greg Haymes

I know what you’re thinking – is a classical banjo concerto really anything more than a novelty? And the answer is no, probably not… unless the composer-banjo player happens to be Bela Fleck, who is certainly one of the most fearlessly adventurous musicians on the planet. And, yes, Fleck’s instrument of choice is the banjo, an instrument that resided squarely in the bluegrass and old-timey mountain folk music realms until Fleck came along.

And while Fleck’s musical roots are buried deep in bluegrass traditions, he has made a career out of breaking away from the banjo’s limitations and expanding the instrument’s musical horizons into previously unheard of genres – beginning with the progressively minded New Grass Revival, then the even more freewheeling Strength in Numbers, then the jazz-rock funk of Bela Fleck & the Flecktones.

Those pioneering accomplishments by themselves would make Fleck a major figure in the banjo’s development, but it turned out that they were just the start of his musical journey. He’s recorded jazz with such great pianists as Chick Corea and Marcus Roberts. He recorded the exquisite album Throw Down Your Heart with an array of African musicians. He played with country music artists from Garth Brooks to the Statler Brothers to Dolly Parton. He lent his talents to such folk music veterans as Doc Watson, Hazel Dickens and John Hartford. Celtic music with Maura O’Connell, Solas, the Chieftains and Paul Brady. On the rock end of the spectrum, his five-string wizardry can be heard on recordings by Jerry Garcia, Phish and the Dave Matthews Band.

But last week at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Fleck was surrounded by the Philadelphia Orchestra, performing his “The Impostor: Concerto for Banjo and Symphony Orchestra.” As the title suggests with Fleck’s usual wry sense of humor, the 35-minute concerto musically follows a poseur (in this case, Fleck’s banjo) who tries to sneak in and mingle in a place that he doesn’t necessarily belong (the orchestra), only to eventually be exposed as an interloper. If you need further explanation, Fleck has titled the three movements “Infiltration,” “Integration” and “Truth Revealed.”

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It’s a witty, self-deprecating conceit neatly constructed, especially during the third movement, when Fleck eventually was unmasked, and he finally let his five-string fly with a flurry of Earl Scruggs-like banjo breakdowns.

Unlike Goat Rodeo – whose magnificent concert the previous week at Tanglewood stridently defied classification as either bluegrass or classical music (or anything else, for that matter) – Fleck’s “Impostor” fits squarely in the classical music category. The first movement was upbeat and playful, Fleck’s impeccable banjo playing often echoing the orchestra with etude-like passages.

The second movement was slower and more melodic, as the banjo and orchestra blended together more frequently, and they got comfortable with each other. The movement was at times a bit heavy-handed, but the banjo offered a dizzying array of chromatic twists and turns, showcasing the diversity of Fleck’s vast musical universe with dramatic and dynamic transitions in mood, tone and tempo.

But it was the third and final movement that was the big pay-off of the evening. Under the direction of conductor Giancarlo Guerrero, the orchestra got down for some undeniably bluesy passages and swung through some swaggering jazz, as well. And when Fleck cut loose with his intricate, fast-flying fretwork, it seemed as though ultimately, yes, perhaps the banjo does deserve an occasional seat in the orchestra.

Following a standing ovation, Fleck returned to the stage with a solo rendition based on the classic Flatt & Scruggs tune, “The Ballad of Jed Clampett.” Although initially almost unrecognizable, the mesmerizing performance seamlessly blended the “Beverly Hillbillies” with Bach and a dozen or so other excursions, making for a masterfully musical mash-up.

“The Imposter” was a bold move both for Fleck – whose previous concerto work was penned in collaboration with Goat Rodeo’s bassist Edgar Meyer – and for the Philadelphia Orchestra, too, who hopefully brought some new non-classical fans to the seats and converted them to the joys of orchestral music.

The question remains, however, whether “The Imposter” has legs in the classical canon. While it’s an undeniably brilliant new feather in Fleck’s cap, 100 years from now will there be a banjo player willing or even capable of stepping into Fleck’s shoes to carry on his concerto?

The Philadelphia Orchestra has departed from SPAC for the summer, but Bela Fleck has a couple of upcoming Nippertown concerts that will showcase his talents in radically different musical settings. He’s playing with his wife (and sublime banjoist) Abigail Washburn at the mind-boggling sculpture garden Opus 40 in Saugerties at 3pm on Sunday (September 1) with opening acts Mike + Ruthy and Elijah & the Moon. Tickets are $45. And at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington at 7pm on Sunday, October 6, Fleck will head up the astonishing New York Banjo Summit – also featuring banjo greats Tony Trischka, Bill Keith (who was at The Egg earlier this with as part of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band’s 50th anniversary reunion concert), Eric Weissberg, Noam Pikelny, Richie Stearns and Washburn. Tickets are $30, $60 & $70.

SECOND OPINIONS
Joseph Dalton’s review at The Times Union
Ed Burke’s photograph at The Saratogian
Excerpt from Geraldine Freedman’s review at The Daily Gazette: “The three-movement concerto is not Fleck’s first excursion into classical writing, but it is his first concerto. There was a lot of color, some interesting offbeat writing, hints of bluegrass and jazz and some pretty melodies. Mostly, the writing was exploratory without too much architecture, with motifs passed around the sections and to the banjo. Fleck’s part was not especially showy — actually it was fairly tame. Only in his cadenza near the end did he show some of what he’s famous for. The large crowd cheered enough to get an encore, and then it heard a wizard at work. Basing what he improvised around the theme song of the TV show ‘The Beverly Hillbillies,’ which Fleck’s hero, Earl Scruggs, originally performed, Fleck added a little Bach to the mix to thrill the crowd. It was spellbinding and the crowd erupted in a huge roar.”

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