Check out our review of this concert here.
Béla Fleck has long been known as one of the world’s foremost banjo players, but he is also a sophisticated and tasteful composer. The Nashville Symphony Orchestra commissioned The Concerto for Banjo as a way to fill the banjo-shaped hole in orchestral repertoire (and perhaps also as a nod to the city’s status as the capital of Country and Western music.) For those many of us not well-versed in classical music, a concerto is a piece of music featuring a soloist backed by an orchestra. While Fleck is no stranger to composing and arranging music for diverse ensembles, a large-scale orchestral work represents new territory for him.
If anyone is up to the challenge of composing for banjo with orchestra, it’s Béla Fleck. Fleck has enjoyed a long and illustrious career as a professional banjoist, starting in 1981 with New Grass Revival and continuing with the formation of his own band the Flecktones with Victor Wooten in 1988. Fleck’s work spans bluegrass, country, jazz, and classical music, and sometimes he makes up something new. His projects have lead him to incorporate African music and Indian music into his banjo performance, and he has worked with artists as diverse as Chet Atkins, Earl Scruggs, Zakir Hussain, Toumani Diabate, and Steve Martin.
The banjo is not a traditional orchestral instrument, and it represents a significant challenge in terms of orchestration and arrangement. The timbre of the banjo is quite unique and does not readily blend with many of the instruments or sections of the orchestra; however, in the concerto setting the timbral differences may actually be used to help highlight the soloist by keeping the parts distinct from each other.
In any case, Fleck is an able composer, and his new work is already experiencing a popularity most classical composers don’t get to enjoy. In addition to the premiere performance by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, the Concerto for Banjo has been performed by the Alabama Symphony Orchestra and is scheduled for performances by the Colorado Symphony and the Buffalo Philharmonic. The Canadian premiere of the work is right here in Edmonton, with our very own and very talented Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. As of writing, Edmonton’s is the only scheduled performance of the piece in Canada.
After the concerto, Fleck will perform a solo banjo recital. Béla almost never does solo recitals in this fashion, so this is a special treat for Edmonton. Fleck brings with him his 1937 Gibson Mastertone banjo, a jewel of an instrument which is itself an enduring piece of incredible master craftsmanship. A Béla Fleck solo recital on this instrument will truly be a rare privilege to experience.
Béla Fleck’s Concerto for Orchestra will be performed at the Winspear Centre on Tuesday, Oct 2. by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and Fleck himself. Tickets can be purchased online from the Winspear Centre or from the box office on performance night. Check out YegLive.ca for more information, upcoming concerts, and tickets.