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Super-star banjo player Béla Fleck, who joined the Winston-Salem Symphony, under the leadership of music director Timothy Redmond, wowed the sold-out crowd in the Stevens Center with his 2016 Banjo Concerto No. 2, Juno. Fleck composed the work in 2016 in honor of the birth of his son, Juno Jasper Washburn Fleck.
Fleck (b.1958) has accrued a mass of awards, including 15 Grammys and more nominations in more categories than any other artist in Grammy history. He still collaborates with artists such as Chick Corea, Chris Thile, Zakir Hussain, Edgar Meyer, Abigail Washburn (his wife), and, of course, his band of 25 years, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones.
But his orchestral compositions have taken the banjoist in still another direction. The second concerto, in a traditional classical mold of three movements (fast, slow, fast), allows for plenty of orchestral color and moments in the spotlight for the soloist to display his impeccable technique.
The first movement begins with a nod to Copland's 1942 "Fanfare for the Common Man," with its opening three-note motif, here played imitatively by the orchestra. Thus begins the minute and a half intro before the banjo enters, playing solo. Fleck immediately displayed his command of his instrument, his fleet fingers flying over the fingerboard. Aided by five percussionists, the movement sweeps through colorful as well as epic passages, dividing the material between soloist and orchestra. Throughout, Redmond, worked closely with Fleck to keep everything tight, led the orchestra with energy and tenderness.
The middle movement, a more meditative affair, begins with a solo riff (reminiscent of the opening motif), which is gently joined by soft strings. The lively finale builds to dramatic climaxes and is the most "bluegrass" sounding movement. But this is a concerto, and the orchestra is masterfully utilized with lots of its own repeated "folky" riffs.
The crowd was appropriately knocked out by the work, and Fleck returned to the stage for a single encore, a medley that included both blues grass and transcriptions of works by Chopin and Debussy, a winning blending of disparate styles.
What a delight it was to hear "Shivaree" by Winston-Salem composer Kenneth Frazelle (b.1955)! The work, commissioned by the WSS for its 50th anniversary in 1996, is a great piece of Americana. One can hear folk-inspired tunes as well as the orchestral influences of Copland and Bernstein. According to the composer, who briefly talked about the work from the stage, the 10-minute composition was inspired by memories of childhood shenanigans carried out by family members on New Year's Eve, which included banging on pots and pans to rouse other relatives.
Utilizing the full resources of the large orchestra including a boisterous percussion section (actual pots and pans are part of the percussion battery), the work is chock-full of syncopated liveliness. A tranquil middle section portrays another childhood recollection of Frazelle and his father watching shooting stars in the night. The final section returns the energy from the opening and concludes with a big bang. Brilliant playing by the orchestra and energized leadership by Redmond thrilled the audience.
Talking about big bangs – the evening opened with the percussion pronouncement (timpani, bass drum, and tam-tam of the iconic "Fanfare for the Common Man" by Copland (1900-90). The twelve brass players (5 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones and tuba) filed onto the front of the stage to deliver the stirring (almost perfect) salute.
The all-American program (with all works composed since the 1940s) also included Copland's 1942 Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo, which include several pre-existing "cowboy" tunes. The opening multi-sectioned "Buckaroo Holiday" is loaded with syncopated passages and contains several solos (including trombone, trumpet, and oboe to name only three) with unexpected humorous pauses.
The languid and evocative "Corral Nocturne" provides the slow movement and featured lovely playing by the entire orchestra. "Saturday Night Waltz" opens epically before proceeding into the slow dance. The famous "Hoedown" provided the barnburner conclusion.
Redmond, in his second appearance as the orchestra's new music director, conducted the entire evening without a baton and led the orchestra with fine musicianship and grace. We are lucky to have him at the helm of this esteemed ensemble.
This program repeats Sunday, January 12 at 3 pm. See our sidebar for details.