Banjo Goes Classical

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Bela Fleck
Bela Fleck

Bela Fleck is one of the most recognizable and respected banjo players there is. He’s performed seemingly everywhere, from Wolftrap to Bonaroo. He’s even been on Sesame Street. Yet he’s feeling a little nervous about his latest project, in a good way.

Next week, Fleck will perform the world premiere of his concerto for banjo and orchestra with the Nashville Symphony. And as WPLN’s Nina Cardona reports, it’s bringing Fleck’s life-long love of the instrument full-circle.

“Come and listen to a story…”

Bela Fleck can tell you exactly where he first heard the banjo. “Oh yeah, that was Earl Scruggs and it was the Beverly Hillbillies,” Fleck recalls. “I was pretty little, somewhere between four or five, maybe. This show came on and this sound came on. It just transfixed me, I didn’t know what was going on.”

It was an exotic sound to the boy from New York City.

Much of Fleck’s career has been spent taking the banjo where it isn’t usually found. He’s played with jam bands and masters of traditional music from Africa and Asia. His usual bandmates, the Flecktones, come from the worlds of funk, r&b and jazz.

This project isn’t his first go at writing a classical concerto, but both of Fleck’s past efforts were collaborations with double bass player Edgar Meyer. “I have to say I was riding on his coattails,” says Fleck, “which is a big reason why I needed to do one myself, for my own self-respect at some point.”

Going Solo

Fleck says writing totally on his own was a new experience. “I had never actually written a piece from start to end. Normally when I play with people I write a song on the banjo. I show it to the guys and we work on parts together. When you’re writing a classical piece, every note of the piece from the downbeat to the ending has to be written, and I’d never done that.”

Fleck says he hopes his concerto will be "liberating" for the banjo.
Fleck says he hopes his concerto will be “liberating” for the banjo.

It took nearly a year to write the concerto. Fleck says he started by listening. “I went out to Oregon, a place called Cannon Beach and just hung out there for two weeks, and I would go out jogging on the beach, listening to classical music.

“Brahms Concertos…I was listening to Bartok, some of it for the first time. I listened to Rachmaninoff for the first time. I was getting familiar with Beethoven’s stuff. I liked a lot of his piano sonatas, [which] were really inspiring for ideas. When I hear classical piano it makes me think of the banjo, a lot.

“I would, after running on the beach and listening to this great classical music, I would go write, and at the end of two weeks I had about thirty one- or two-minute ideas.

“Then I just started assembling them when I was on tour on the road in the back of the bus after the show. I’d have my headphones on and I’d be listening to them, thinking about it, trying them in different orders and different keys.”

A Private Performance

When he was done, but before final rehearsals with the orchestra, Fleck played a preview for Earl Scruggs, the man whose playing first captured Fleck’s attention in a TV theme song.

“It was intense, it was intense. Now, I have to say that Earl and I have gotten to be pretty good friends over the last few years and I go to see him, he lives about a mile from me. When I’m in town I’ll go see him, we sit and play. And despite the fact that Earl for a lot of people is considered the tradition and I might be considered the modernist, Earl has never looked at it this way. He considers himself an innovator. So I don’t know, I was telling him that I felt like this whole piece was a result of everything he’s done. All the roads that he’s opened up have lead to the roads that I’ve walked.”

Fleck says Scruggs seemed to like what he heard.

“There were a couple times I thought maybe he’d gone to sleep. I mean, he’s 88 years old, but then he didn’t, he wasn’t; he was listening. I played it on the banjo while the computer played the symphony parts. Whenever I played the banjo he would perk up and whenever I would do some of the more intricate things he would get this smile on his face. He’s a man of very few words, but the few words were, ‘that sounds hard,’ or ‘that’s really something.’ That sort of thing.

“It was just more the fact of working on this thing for a year and getting to sit and play it for the guy who inspired me to pick up the banjo in the first place.”

Bela Fleck’s Concerto for Banjo and Orchestra is dedicated to Earl Scruggs.

Web extra:

Fleck played at NPR with Meyer and tabla player Zakir Hussein on July 26, 2010, as part of the Tiny Desk Concert Series. You can see that performance here.

Nina Cardona

Nina Cardona is WPLN's host for All Things Considered. As a reporter, she covers a wide range of assignments with an emphasis on culture, the arts and local history. A graduate of Converse College, she's lived in Middle Tennessee most of her life.
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