Béla Fleck’s Gershwin Rhapsody at Blossom is more than just ‘delusions of banjer’

United StatesUnited States Blossom Festival 2024 [1]: Béla Fleck (banjo), Cleveland Orchestra / Brett Mitchell (conductor). Blossom Music Center, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, 6.7.2024. (MSJ)

Conductor Brett Mitchell and the Cleveland Orchestra © Kevin Libal/CO

Bernstein – Three Dance Episodes from On the Town
GershwinRhapsody in Blue (trans. Béla Fleck)
Barber – Overture to The School for Scandal, Op.5
Still – Symphony No.1, ‘Afro-American’

In 1992, the Austin, Texas, folk-punk-bluegrass band Bad Livers released an album delightfully titled Delusions of Banjer, playing off the old phrase ‘delusions of grandeur’. News that banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck had spent his time during the Covid pandemic arranging George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue for banjo and orchestra begged the question: labor of love or delusions of banjer? Hearing it live in the opening classical concert of the 2024 Blossom Music Festival with the Cleveland Orchestra leads me to think that it’s a little of both but fun either way.

There is no doubt that Fleck is the world’s pre-eminent banjo player, one who regularly pulls off stunts of jaw-dropping virtuosity. He has commented that the Gershwin piece, originally for piano and orchestra (or piano and jazz band, in the original version), has been a lodestone for him his whole life, and bringing it into the world of his five-stringed instrument was a bucket list project. Fleck proved that it could be done. Whether it should be done is a little less certain, but there’s always something to be said for reinventing the classics.

Rhapsody in Blue has a lot of intricate figurations that lie gratefully under the hands on the piano which was, after all, Gershwin’s instrument. Transferring those figurations to the banjo was heroic work on Fleck’s part, but the upper limits of human digital dexterity on this instrument put a dour governor on how fast it can be played, which did result in a performance that was held back in places.

One of the problems was the nature of the necessary amplification to pit banjo against full orchestra. The amplified tone had a boosted mid-range and diminished high range, distorting the naturally tart sound of the instrument. Though conductor Brett Mitchell was careful not to drown out the soloist, Fleck’s insistence on capturing all the notes and avoiding the kind of jazz banjo strum that might be expected in such an arrangement limited his potential dynamic range. A banjo can make a fair amount of noise, but it can’t rival the sheer firepower of a piano, so the held-back volume levels felt inhibited.

Béla Fleck (banjo) at the Blossom Music Center © Kevin Libal/CO

There was much jumping of octaves to fit all the piano notes to the banjo, plus some small cuts and tweaks of material. All-in-all, it was a fun and interesting take on a classic that is celebrating its centenary this year. Fleck’s fans – heavily in attendance – were determined to receive the arrangement rapturously and did so. For many, it was perhaps an entertaining experiment that can serve as a supplement to the piece without ever replacing it, which is all that Fleck sought in the first place. I would call that a success. He gave a delightful solo encore which started with abstract ripples but ended up quoting the theme from TV’s The Beverly Hillbillies, to the great amusement of the audience.

The rest of this all-American program included an alternately joyful and sensual romp through Leonard Bernstein’s Three Dance Episodes from the musical On the Town, with outstanding solos from Michael Sachs on trumpet and Daniel McKelway on clarinet. Brett Mitchell led with great assurance but left room for individual players and entire sections to stand out. The Overture to The School for Scandal by Samuel Barber was given with similar fizzing energy, with Mitchell shrewdly knowing when to steer things and when to let the orchestra run with it. Principal oboist Frank Rosenwein brought the solos to lush, lyrical life. To be honest, in some performances, I wait for those oboe solos to pass so I can get back to the fun fast music, but Rosenwein has a way of grabbing your attention – he doesn’t merely play notes, he communicates. When you hear it played like that, you see why Barber put it there.

The concert closed with a lovely opportunity to savor William Grant Still’s First Symphony, subtitled ‘Afro-American’ by the composer, though as Mitchell pointed out in his opening remarks, it could just as easily have been called the ‘Blues Symphony’. The work matches the twelve-bar structure of blues with the more traditional eight-bar phrasing of classical music, finally intermixing them to the point that it becomes something new. Still’s sense of orchestral color serves the material well in the first three movements. Only the last movement comes off as overlong and subdued. Perhaps the work might feel better closing the first half of a concert instead of the end, but it is worthy music, well worth the occasional outing. The orchestra was outstanding in Still’s numerous wind solos and featured sections, combined with the strings digging in deeply.

Brett Mitchell has opened the last few Blossom Festival seasons and proven to be a popular leader. He can take a laid-back approach at times, never pushing the players of the Cleveland Orchestra too urgently, but he certainly allows them plenty of room to demonstrate their skills, which they did here with gusto. Mitchell has long history with the Cleveland Orchestra, first as an assistant and then an associate conductor, followed by regular guest appearances ever since, and he is a welcome returning guest. He begins his music directorship of the Pasadena Symphony this fall.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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