A Surprising New Banjo Concerto from Béla Fleck

United StatesUnited States Glinka, Fleck, Rossini, Sibelius, Enescu: Béla Fleck (banjo), Canton Symphony Orchestra / Gerhardt Zimmermann (conductor), Umstattd Performing Arts Hall, Canton, Ohio. 19.3.2016. (TW)

Glinka: Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla
Béla Fleck: Juno Concerto
Rossini: Overture to Semiramide
Sibelius: Finlandia
Enescu: Romanian Rhapsody No. 1

“Once again, I’m attempting to put the banjo into different waters and not have it play the role of the hayseed.” ~Béla Fleck

An exhilarating journey billed as “Scenic Moments,” this program from the Canton Symphony Orchestra began with Glinka’s brilliant Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla. Just as Glinka’s hero wished to win the hand of Ludmilla in marriage, Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann was on a mission to claim the audience’s unqualified affections. The intense rhythms of the opening theme, announced with an exclamatory burst from brass, winds, and timpani, charged ahead with strings scampering along at breakneck speed. The ensemble performed with warmth and electrifying precision.

Rossini’s Semiramide (1823) is a tragic melodrama about the Queen of Babylon murdering her husband and falling in love with her son, yet the opera’s overture is anything but dark. The orchestra navigated the lilting, ornamental episodes and vivacious crescendos with the same finesse it brought elsewhere on the concert, including Sibelius’s Finlandia and Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody No. 1. The latter was an exuberant end to the evening, with high-velocity pyrotechnics from the winds. And its spirited folk melodies were a reminder of the evening’s focal point, the world premiere of Béla Fleck’s second effort for banjo and orchestra, his Juno Concerto (2015-16), named for his two-year-old son.

In 2014 the CSO performed Fleck’s first concerto, The Impostor (2011), which told a story of a “hero” banjo player infiltrating an orchestra in an attempt to validate himself as a classical musician, only to find he could not completely forsake his country, folk, and bluegrass roots. While not narrative, Juno could be regarded as a sequel, giving credence to the banjo as a legitimate—indeed, beautiful—denizen of the classical world.

Along with revealing Fleck’s appreciation of orchestral colors, Juno also shows a commitment to the traditional concerto format: three movements in “fast-slow-fast” order. Within that structure, Fleck’s thematic developments feel less frenetic than in The Impostor, though an equally adventurous platform for his virtuosity as a soloist. For all of its harmonic eclecticism and contrapuntal complexity, Juno exudes newfound elegance and confidence.

The first movement introduces most of the concerto’s thematic motifs. A fanfare-like passage for the brass mingles with strings and winds to evoke a mystical pastorale, at times soaring with a cinematic flourish. Fleck’s chording and spectacular arpeggios act as a pulse, like so many dissonant heartbeats. A similarly haunting lyricism in the slow second movement is enhanced by sensual slides from the cellos and violas. Clarinet and oboe evoke vaguely Asian harmonies that seem to effortlessly morph into earthy Appalachian tunes. The entire work is a tour de force of melodies, complex rhythms, and unexpected meters, all executed with riveting clarity and meticulous attention to aural textures. Yet even amid the boisterous swagger—such as the trumpets and percussion in the third movement—the music never feels chaotic. Juno also shows Fleck’s generosity in letting the orchestra show its stuff; he’s often content to be in a supportive role.

Inspired by Zimmermann’s astute reading of his first concerto, Fleck chose the CSO as lead commissioner for this new one (co-commissioned by the Colorado Symphony, Louisville Orchestra, and South Carolina Philharmonic). In Fleck’s words, he opportunity afforded him a way “of going back to the well, back to the same challenges, and seeing what I learned from them in the first concerto…I’m really happy about this, because I love this orchestra and I love Gerhardt.” Judging from the chemistry between everyone onstage in this stunning performance, the feeling was mutual.

Tom Wachunas

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