Bewitched by the Banjo—and Two Béla’s

United StatesUnited States Bartók, Fleck, Franck: Béla Fleck (banjo), Canton Symphony Orchestra, Gerhardt Zimmermann (conductor), Umstattd Hall, Canton, Ohio, 22.03.2014 (TW)

Béla Bartók: Romanian Folk Dances (1915)
Béla Fleck: The Impostor, Concerto for Banjo and Orchestra (2011)
César Franck: Symphony in D minor (1888)

There was more than one surprise when the Canton Symphony Orchestra presented “A Béla, a Bartók, and a Surprise” at Umstattd Hall. For starters, this was likely the first time the audience could see the musicians towering larger than life, captured live on camera and projected on to a screen behind the orchestra.

It’s certainly an effective tool for highlighting various sections or soloists, but only if the camera shots are properly coordinated with the music. On this occasion there were some shortcomings, not unlike watching television and seeing football players sitting on the sidelines, just as a big scoring play transpires on the field. That said, this new element will no doubt be adjusted to enhance concerts enormously.

In Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances, the orchestra was in peak form in the exotic modalities, rhythms and mood shifts—but there was added significance. The thematic eclecticism (springing from Bartók’s seminal work in ethnomusicology) was a fitting foretaste of the wildly varied musical contexts explored by Béla Fleck (named, in fact, after Bartók)—the inimitable contemporary banjoist and composer—in The Impostor, Concerto for Banjo and Orchestra.

No doubt many in the audience were already familiar with Fleck’s genius taking the humble banjo far beyond folk and bluegrass genres, and fusing it with jazz and classical idioms. For the uninitiated, and judging from the effusive response, this was a surprising, ear-opening adventure of the most delightful sort.

Composed in 2011, the three movements—titled “Infiltration,” “Integration” and “Truth Revealed”—treat the banjo as (in Fleck’s words) a “hero” who “is trying to avoid the truth of who he is, but in the end cannot avoid it.” Fleck’s concerto is a jaunt through intricate articulations that echo Bach, Stravinsky or Bartók, with hints of Copland lyricism—all laced with contrapuntal playfulness and piquant call-and-response passages between soloist and orchestra.

Throughout, Fleck’s technical agility was astonishingly relaxed and fluid, and many mesmerizing, virtuosic passages were punctuated by his gentle nod of approval to the orchestra, followed by a warm, wide-eyed smile to the audience. Most impressive was an unexpected range of tonalities emanating from the banjo, always flawlessly balanced with the ensemble. The invigorating third movement, flavored with Gershwin-like swagger, built to a jaw-dropping banjo cadenza inflected with Fleck’s roots in bluegrass and the music of Earl Scruggs, to whom the work was originally dedicated.

Not surprisingly, the audience clamored for an encore. Fleck gladly obliged with an enthralling improvisation on the theme song from the 1960s television comedy, The Beverly Hillbillies—like a jazz-and-country meeting between Charlie Parker and Earl Scruggs.

While it’s true that Fleck’s concerto effectively employed the orchestra’s full range of intoxicating textures and colors, a concert by this orchestra would feel somehow unsatisfying without showcasing even further the breadth of its sonority and emotive power. To that end, César Franck’s Symphony in D minor made the evening complete, with breathtaking radiance.

For the surprise, Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann called for Bob Leibensperger, member of the CSO Board of Trustees, to join him on stage. As Assistant Conductor Rachel Waddell stepped up to the podium to lead the orchestra, both men took a seat facing each other, Leibensperger comfortably settled in an easy chair, as Zimmermann began reading Garrison Keillor’s The Young Lutheran’s Guide to the Orchestra.

This hilarious, tongue-in-cheek admonition to those of the Lutheran persuasion who might be considering a classical career is basically an inventory of the instruments in a modern orchestra, assessing their “spiritual desirability” (or lack thereof). Randall Davidson composed the music, inspired by two hymns, Beautiful Savior and Jesus Loves Me, and gave a part to Zimmermann, who delivered a refrain with exaggerated solemnity. With this memorable display of avuncular good humor, the evening was truly complete.

Tom Wachunas     

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