This past weekend The Cleveland Orchestra, with guest conductor Giancarlo Guerrero, played works by John Adams, Aaron Copland and George Gershwin, but the major work on the program was Béla Fleck’s Banjo Concerto, with the composer as soloist. This review is based on the performance of Saturday, 8 December.
John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine, written in 1986, fills its five-minute length with as many notes as possible, beginning with a percussionist pounding the pulse on a woodblock which continues insistently (with a “hiccup” or two) through to the end of the piece. The orchestra, however, is not restrained by such four-square meter, and is all over the place rhythmically. The prevailing dynamic is loud to very loud, with just a few moments of respite along the way. Angular brass fanfares bring the piece to its sudden conclusion. Adams’ minimalism was quite thrilling, and The Cleveland Orchestra’s precision was breathtaking.
American banjo player Béla Fleck was making his Cleveland Orchestra debut in these concerts. Since the late 1970s he has taken the banjo from its American bluegrass roots to a serious concert instrument, while never losing sight of its more down-home origins in his association with the renowned bluegrass band New Grass Revival in the 1980s, and later associations with a variety of popular music artists. Mr Fleck has written several concert works for banjo and orchestra, the latest of which – this concerto – was commissioned by the Nashville Symphony and received its première there in 2011, and its Cleveland première at these concerts.
The history of instrumentalists composing works that display their own virtuosity goes back hundreds of years; Béla Fleck’s concerto is a worthy successor in that long line. One would be hard pressed to imagine anyone else on the current scene performing it. Audience members who came expecting standard bluegrass riffs with orchestral filler were disappointed. This was an impressive three-movement work with identifiable musical structures and development, a mostly astringent harmonic palette (with a few traditional bluegrass moments), counterpoint that displayed an understanding of the capabilities of the orchestra, and opportunities for orchestral soloists to shine.
But primarily it showed the extraordinary range of sounds that Béla Fleck was able to coax from his banjo. Unlike a guitar, the banjo has little resonance to sustain notes, so the solo passages tended to be long streams of notes. The influence of other composers, especially Aaron Copland, Béla Bartók and Paul Hindemith, was present, but this was not pastiche; rather, it was a reflection of Mr Fleck’s artistic vision. The banjo sound was discreetly amplified to balance with the orchestra. There were arresting orchestral textures into which the banjo sound was integrated. There were several extended cadenzas for the soloist, but it was not until midway through the third movement that Béla Fleck acknowledged his bluegrass origins, in passages of remarkable intricacy.
At the end of the concerto the audience’s ovation brought Béla Fleck back for a solo encore, presumably of his own devising, featuring snippets from jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmastime Is Here” (from the soundtrack of the beloved animated Christmas television special A Charlie Brown Christmas) and other very familiar American tunes. The improvisation ended with perhaps the best known (to a non-specialist audience, at least) of all bluegrass banjo songs, the theme from the 1960s television show The Beverly Hillbillies, first played on the TV soundtrack by Earl Scruggs, to whom Mr Fleck’s concerto is dedicated.
Mr Guerrero returned after intermission for the Copland and Gershwin masterpieces. Copland’s Billy the Kid suite, with its evocations of the windswept western American landscape, and Gershwin’s witty and urbane An American in Paris are American tone-poems worthy of consideration alongside Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben. These performances were brilliant in every observable way, yet at least for this listener, they never really caught fire. How to describe it? The performances were almost too perfect, missing the freedom and jazzy flexibility that is inherent especially in the Gershwin work. They simply shouldn’t sound like Mozart, or even John Adams; the Cleveland Orchestra’s elegance worked against them in this instance.
At the curtain calls Mr Guerrero brought Cleveland Orchestra horn player Richard Solis to the front of the stage in recognition of Mr Solis’ retirement from the orchestra after 41 years, eighteen of which were as principal horn. Audience and orchestra alike honored him with sustained applause and cheering for a remarkable career.