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Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium was the destination for the swarms of people who descended on the Brevard Music Center to hear one of the season's most unusual concerts. Local producer John Felty, head of Mountain Song Productions, along with Woody Platt (of the Steep Canyon Rangers) partnered with the Center to bring internationally acclaimed banjoists Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn to perform both as duo artists, and with the Brevard Festival Orchestra under the direction of Keith Lockhart. The anchoring piece with the orchestra was Fleck's own banjo concerto, The Impostor, written in 2011 and commissioned by The Nashville Symphony. But the promise of hearing this husband and wife duo perform in their usual manner – on multiple banjos and with her vocals – was what surely drew so many to this event who don't normally attend BMC events. The lead sponsor was Platt Architecture.
Fleck's formidable talent, coupled with an irresistible urge to bridge music genres, has garnered him an unprecedented 30 Grammy nominations and 15 Grammys. His work embraces bluegrass, jazz, pop, rock, and world music, and in performance, all of these elements can be discerned. For all of his technical prowess and pyrotechnics up and down the instrument, he sits as a quiet player and seems content to let the music speak for itself. Washburn is no slouch as a banjoist herself, playing solidly in her old-time claw hammer style. Her vocal strengths are her raw emotive power and visceral connection to Gospel and Old Time music, which she unleashes in torrents of singing, which can sound like primal wailing. It's an arresting style of vocal delivery that fits with the folk and traditional roots of much of what she sings. But, there's more – she's fluent in Mandarin, and belted out one number ("The Sun Has Come Out and We are So Happy") in an authentic Chinese performance style that demonstrated yet another facet of this fascinating women's musical arsenal. She can clog, too, which she did to the delight of the audience.
The first half of the show for the duo only was devoted to songs the two artists had recorded in their album titled simply Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, a 2016 Grammy winner for Best Folk Album. Sitting in the middle of the stage amid a sea of differently sized banjos, they opened with "I've Been Workin' On the Railroad." This served as a preview of things to come – the utter transformation of a strophic traditional song into one of their own making with Washburn as vocalist. They followed with a purely instrumental number, "Banjo, Banjo," in which the complex strumming of their different styles seemed to add up to more than 2 players. "Little Birdie" reached into the world of bluegrass and folk, while "Shotgun Blues," startling for its gunshot and hammer blow effects, gleefully recounted the gruesome details of a traditional old-time murder ballade, though written by Washburn to exact revenge on the man who'd "done the woman wrong." Then, the emotional landscape shifted yet again to the gentler realm of the spiritual with "What are They Doing in Heaven Today?" by George Washington "Wash" Phillips, a Texas-born pastor from the ca.1920s. Following this was "New South Africa," a tune Fleck performed with the Flecktones in 1994-5 in celebration of Nelson Mandela's presidency. This piece was a stunning display of the kind of conversational playing two consummate professionals (who are also married to one another) can have through music. The set ended with "Divine Bell," which Washburn sang standing while soliciting audience sing-backs to some of the phrases of the refrain.
After intermission the orchestra joined Fleck onstage for The Impostor Concerto. Fleck's written comments about the writing of the piece are tinged with trepidation and humorous apology. What, after all, is a banjo doing in the middle of an orchestra? What is he doing writing music in a classical genre? Did his prior concerto-writing collaborations with Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hussain develop his "stuff" sufficiently to succeed in writing this one on his own? Fleck has been amazingly candid about all of this, even to the point of making a documentary film on the composition process that brought the work to light.
The first movement, subtitled "Infiltration," showed why he may have had doubts. After a slow and soft opening with instruments gradually added to the mix, suddenly the banjo is there quietly strumming, and quickly fixates on the licks and figurations that define its part. The orchestral writing, while colorful in places, isn't well integrated with the soloist, and the two forces remain worlds apart. Parts of it just sound strange. The second movement subtitled "Integration" begins with the strings, which play melodic snippets akin to Bartók in shaping and spacing; it is their lyricism, in contrast to the rhythmic sounds of the banjo, that contributes to the greater success of this movement. It is in the third movement subtitled "Truth Revealed" where Fleck hits his stride as a composer. The rhythmic impulse reigns supreme in the orchestral parts that are etched in declamatory, driving, and often-syncopated passages, and Fleck shone in both accompanied passages and the solo banjo spots.
To end the evening, Washburn joined Fleck and the orchestra to explore more of their repertoire. The wistful song of longing "Ride to U" was written by them, while "And Am I Born to Die," was chosen from The Sacred Harp collection from ca. the late 1700s. This last song showcased Fleck's skills as an arranger, and with its simple and direct message delivered in consummate style by Washburn was a hands-down audience favorite.
The concert ended with a toe-tapping finale that had Lockhart literally dancing on the podium. "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" served as the encore.