Banjos and classical music are not a familiar pairing to most folks but that doesn’t mean the two are mutually exclusive. These days, when you can find accordionists playing arrangements of piano sonatas by Haydn and heavy metal guitarists “shredding” Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee,” you shouldn’t be too surprised that banjo pickers have chosen to branch out from their roots.
Bela Fleck has been branching out for a few decades now, stretching the boundaries of bluegrass with the New Grass Revival, taking his instrument into the world of fusion jazz with the Flecktones, and partnering with classically trained bass virtuoso and former MacArthur Foundation grantee Edgar Meyer.
It was Fleck’s pairing with Meyer that led to writing a double concerto for banjo, bass, and orchestra in addition to creating a Grammy Award-winning album (“Perpetual Motion”) that featured adaptations of familiar works by J.S. Bach, Claude Debussy and other well-known composers.
All of this led up to Fleck working on his own concerto for banjo and orchestra, a piece that the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra is including on their program for this weekend along with the U.S. premiere of Christos Papageorgiou’s “Pyrrichios (War Dance)” and the BPO’s first-ever performance of Frederick Delius’ “Florida Suite.” Yes, it’s a weekend of firsts for the orchestra.
Subtitled “The Imposter,” Fleck’s banjo concerto is an interesting piece albeit a problematic one. There are plenty of moments in the first and second movements of the score where the contrast between the quick-decaying sound of the banjo and the long-held notes of the bowed strings perks interest, but all too often the combination just sounds out of place. When the brass and strings play quick passages against Fleck’s banjo, the balances work out fairly well.
The instrument gradually works up a stronger presence as the music moves along, something hinted at by the monikers assigned to the three movements with the last one [“The truth comes out: The Imposter reveals himself as a banjo player”] reveling in the kind of picking that Earl Scruggs, to whom the work is dedicated, used to play.
Papageorgiou’s short piece had plenty of drama and a broad cinematic sweep that wouldn’t be out of place in a movie trailer. The composer filled up eight minutes of time with quick-paced figures being tossed from strings to winds, to brass, to percussion, section by section, before linking up in a unified expression of tautly focused energy. It was a great concert opener and marked the work of someone whose career would be interesting to follow.
The Delius suite was the most successful of his early works for orchestra. Inspired by the music heard during his brief sojourn as an unsuccessful orange grove manager for his father, the “Florida Suite” starts and ends with a sonic whisper – going from “Daybreak” to “At Night.” In between these musical bookends, a number of pleasant melodies are embedded in the string and wind forces, but the only part of the work that has a raised pulse comes in the third movement, entitled “Sunset – Near the Plantation,” where Delius lifts some of the Afro-American dance rhythms he heard from the grove’s workers to provide a lift to the moderate pacing running through the balance of the work.