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Santa Rosa Symphony showcases banjo master Béla Fleck

by Diane Peterson, The Press Democrat, October 31, 2019

Béla Anton Leos Fleck was named after three, 20th-century classical composers — Bela Bartok, Anton Webern and Leos Jánacek — so it’s not surprising that one of the world’s most versatile and virtuosic banjo players has written three solo concertos showcasing his own instrument.

“Juno Concerto,” which Fleck will perform this weekend with the Santa Rosa Symphony, is his third attempt at the genre and was written after the birth of his oldest son, Juno, now 6. The commission for the concerto allowed Fleck to spend more time at home with his family while refining his orchestration chops.

“When I wrote this new one, I had a better idea of what each instrument does well (in an orchestra.),” Fleck said in a phone interview from Mesa, Arizona, where he was on tour with a world music trio. “It plays down better, and it works.”

For the concerto, Fleck said, the challenge will be integrating his instrument’s natural rhythms with the orchestra.

“The notes come in a flurry, and you have to ride the waves,” he said. “It always depends on the conductor’s ability to listen and understand the speed.”

Throughout his career, Fleck has routinely broken new ground in the musical world, experimenting with new sounds, techniques and genres, particularly jazz.

During the 1980s, he performed and recorded with the progressive bluegrass group New Grass Revival. In 1988, he put together the Flecktones, an all-instrumental band blending elements of bluegrass, jazz, rock, rhythm and blues and world music. He also continued to collaborate with other musicians, including bassist and composer Edgar Meyer and Indian tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain. Over the years, he has won more than a dozen Grammy awards that span more categories than any other artist.

In one of his most interesting experiments, Fleck went on a pilgrimage to sub-Saharan Africa — the birthplace of the banjo — where his interactions with local musicians spawned a fascinating 2008 documentary, “Throw Down Your Heart,” and a 2009 companion album, “Throw Down Your Heart: Tales from the Acoustic Planet.”

“If I had a mission, it’s to give the banjo a little more respect,” Fleck said. “It comes from Africa — it’s not the white, Southern joke instrument of “Dueling Banjos” and “Hee Haw.” It became pictured in a certain way, and that left out a central truth ... all the African music that was played on it, the banjo orchestras (of the late 19th century), and the music coming out of the New Orleans scene.”

Fleck first became aware of the banjo at age 5, when he heard bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs play the “Scruggs style” of picking on the country hit, “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” which became the theme music of “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

“It wasn’t just the banjo, it was the way he played it,” Fleck said. “There was something about that sound that went directly into me ... he played with three fingers, with elegance and grace.”

Scruggs had originally played with Bill Monroe, known as the “Father of Bluegrass,” alongside guitarist and singer Lester Flatt. The pair later peeled off to become Flatt & Scruggs, then split up to form their own bands.

“When Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt joined that band, that’s when bluegrass coalesced. Then they left, and the game was on,” Fleck said. “The bluegrass banjo is one of the great offerings bluegrass has made to American music. There’s nothing like that anywhere else in the world.”

Despite growing up in New York City, where there was “no folk or country music anywhere,” Fleck’s love affair with the banjo finally came to fruition when he was 15 and his grandfather bought him an instrument. He immediately picked it up, making progress with the help of a string of banjo teachers and his own, bottled-up passion.

“I would race through teachers and grab all I could, and they would send me to somebody else,” he said. “I was sponging up all this material, but I was definitely self-motivated.”

One of his most important mentors was the banjo player, Tony Trishka, who Fleck describes as “very jazzy and progressive and open-minded.”

“I tried to be like him,” he said. “And eventually, I realized I could find the things that suited my personality.”

When plucked rather than strummed, the banjo sounds similar to a classical guitar. For that reason, Fleck will have to amplify the instrument this weekend to be heard above the symphony.

“It’s not loud when you compare it to the other instruments,” he said. “I’m into attempting to draw a beautiful sound.”

Fleck wrote the three banjo concertos — plus other concertos for multiple instruments — because he wanted to stretch himself as a composer.

“In my first concerto, I tried a lot of stuff, and a lot of it was hard for the orchestra,” he said. “By the second concerto, I had played the first piece several times with orchestras in Philadelphia and Cleveland and Nashville, so I had the experience of being around all the orchestra instruments.”

As a composer, Fleck was inspired by Edgar Meyer, who writes for the string bass because there is a dearth of repertoire for that instrument.

“It seemed like there wasn’t a banjo concerto out there that I wanted to go out and play,” he said. “So I needed to create it myself.”

As preparation, he immersed himself in classical music he wasn’t familiar with, including works by Brahms and Bartok, as well as some of his favorites by Mozart and Beethoven.

A resident of Nashville since 1981, Fleck is married to banjo player and singer Abigail Washburn, and the couple has toured together as a duo with their son, Juno, and a nanny. Now that they have another little boy, 16-month-old Theodore, touring has become more difficult.

Being a father was an eye-opener for Fleck, who felt the experience allowed him to “join the human race.”

“Before becoming a father, I was under this impression that music was the most important thing in the world, and everything else was secondary,” he said. “So it put me back into real life, and things that matter and taking myself a lot less seriously. All of a sudden I got demoted.”

As he has gotten older, Fleck has found it harder to pivot between the different genres of music he has played over the years. So he now takes his time and practices before each gig.

“I used to play on Thursday with the Flecktones, and on Friday with bluegrass,” he said. “Now I want preparation for each one.”

Although he’s not crazy about the “crossover” label, Fleck points out that music has always evolved and borrowed from other music. What’s more important is whether it’s good crossover or not.

“I think blending is a good thing to do, and hopefully you do it well, and it sounds good to people,” he said. “It comes down to the actual musicians and how good they are and if they can make it work.

“That’s my goal, and that’s what I battle for ... every day.”

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