Anticipating A Legacy
One of my more thrilling side gigs over the past several years has been being an annotator for the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) - writing program notes for the CSO’s MasterWorks Concert Series. What follows here is what I was honored to write for the world premiere of Béla Fleck’s second Banjo Concerto, which he will perform with the orchestra on March 19, 8:00 p.m. at Umstattd Performing Arts Hall. If you’re one of those unfortunates who’ve yet to see and hear the CSO, what are you waiting for? Here’s a link to CSO web site for ticket info, as well as to Béla’s web site. I hope to see you there.
Concerto No. 2 for Banjo and Orchestra – “Juno”
By Béla Fleck
Born July 10, 1958, in New York City
For this very special occasion – the world premiere of Juno, Béla Fleck’s second Concerto for Banjo and Orchestra – I was privileged to have a delightful telephone conversation with the composer himself on March 6, 2016. We began with talking about the concerto’s title, Juno, named for his son, now 2 ½ years old.
“When I was searching for titles, I realized that the biggest change in my life was that I was writing as a father,” Fleck said. “The world’s not the same when you become a father, and you see things very differently. You’re a different person when you’re part of that process. It’s not so much about me, even though writing a banjo concerto is sort of a heroic effort. But this time I had a different point of view.”
This is not to say that his new concerto is a specific narrative about Juno or parenthood as such. When Fleck began composing the piece in 2015, the reality of Juno’s presence necessitated significant adjustments in his working schedule and methods, which nonetheless enabled him to explore new and more refined interactions between banjo and orchestra. In that sense Juno, as both a person and a process is, as Fleck puts it, “…inevitably all over this piece.”
In the course of performing his first banjo concerto, The Impostor, some 40 times since its premiere in 2011, including his performance with the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) in 2014, Fleck gained a more inspired sense of orchestral dynamics which he sincerely hopes will be apparent in his new work. “It’s very much a dilettante’s concerto just like the first one,” he says of Juno, adding, “I love Classical music, but I’m not trained. I’m doing it for love and trying to do something good as an outsider. But I’m not as outside as I was for the first concerto. I have a better idea of what can be expressed with an orchestra.”
As clearly demonstrated in The Impostor, Bela Fleck’s virtuosic banjo playing is nothing short of astonishing. In composing it, he looked to do unexpected things with the banjo, things that people wouldn’t think possible with that instrument. “It was like writing with a chip on my shoulder,” Fleck recalled. “I made a very difficult piece to play, which I’m very proud of, and now it’s very easy for me to play. But for this new piece, I really wanted to write something that fell off the banjo, like butter. I even thought I’d call it “Ripple and Flow” for a while, because I’m really trying to take advantage of the things that the banjo does that are so natural and effortless, things that other instruments would labor at and never get… Now, I’ve still written a pretty rhythmically complicated and adventurous piece, but I think I did a lot better at using the colors of the orchestra and allowing them to do what they do best while hopefully allowing what the banjo can do best, maybe even more so than the first concerto.”
Along with Fleck’s sensitivities to orchestral colors in Juno, there is also a decidedly more conscious employment of the traditional concerto format of three movements in fast-slow-fast order. “I did a better job on the slow music this time,” he notes. “Slow music is one of the really great things an orchestra can do – beautiful, open, big, or relaxed sounds.” He describes the tempo of first movement as medium, and as an overture-like exposition of most of the piece’s themes. The slow second movement brings back a motif foreshadowed in the first. Fleck describes it as having “…a lot of ostinato, a lot of underlying rhythms in an odd time meter, with different kinds of harmony in an uneven flow and an old-fashioned sound.” And so on through to further developments, which Fleck calls “one long thought,” in the faster third movement. In characterizing the overarching content and energy of Juno as avoiding overtly Bluegrass or Appalachian associations, Fleck strikes a lighthearted chord when he says, “Once again, I’m attempting to put the banjo into different waters and not have it play the role of the hayseed.”
A prominent element that recurs throughout the concerto is what he calls “groups of five” - something he first explored in The Impostor. To appreciate this aspect, remember that the two numbers in a time signature tell us how many beats are in a measure (bar) of music. A time signature of 4/4, for example, signifies four quarter note beats in a measure. But it does not mean that each measure must have just four quarter notes per se. It means only that each measure has four beats. So traditionally, we might expect even, i.e. symmetrical sub-divisions of notes in a beat. The beat could be comprised of quarter, eighth, sixteenth notes, and so on. In The Impostor, however, Fleck presented many variations of asymmetrical sub-divisions, including groupings of five notes, effectively “stuffing” as many notes as he could into a beat.
For Juno, he says, “Whenever I got the opportunity, I would stick an interesting group of five in, and I decided it was my fun number for the whole piece. I looked for places where five could be an identifying mark. You’ll find it scattered throughout, but in different ways.”
After the CSO’s 2014 performance of The Impostor, CSO President and CEO Michelle Mullaly asked if Fleck would consider another large work commission, and Music Director Gerhardt Zimmermann said it should be another banjo concerto. Fleck agreed quickly and wholeheartedly.
“There are other orchestras co-commissioning this piece [the Colorado and South Carolina orchestras], but it was Canton’s that got the ball rolling, it was their genesis,” Fleck told me. “Canton was the main one, and it’s centered around Gerhardt. I’m really happy about this because I love this orchestra and I love Gerhardt. I liked the idea of going back to the well, back to the same challenges and seeing what I learned from them in the first concerto, and I was excited that he thought I had another one in me. I just felt that he brought something really different to The Impostor. It was…mature. It was such a growth experience for me that I wanted more interaction with the orchestra, to see if I could do it better. I wanted more than one banjo concerto out there, because there aren’t a lot of challenges of this type in the world for someone like me. I want to get better at it and would like to create a body of work for banjo in an orchestral and a Classical setting that I can leave behind.”
Who knows? Perhaps one day we might look back at Béla Fleck’s adventuresome forays into orchestral music and collectively call them The Juno Legacy.