Live: Béla Fleck is best with his banjo, if only Grant Llewellyn would stop talking | Music
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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Live: Béla Fleck is best with his banjo, if only Grant Llewellyn would stop talking

Bluegrass, banjos and a symphony

Posted by on Wed, Sep 25, 2013 at 7:38 PM

Béla Fleck & the North Carolina Symphony
Meymandi Concert Hall
Tuesday, Sept. 24


World of Bluegrass
has arrived in Raleigh, and everyone who cares is finding their own way into the action. At Quail Ridge Books on Sunday, for instance, I spied a window display that welcomed members of the International Bluegrass Music Association and lured them with albums by their heroes and books about the traditional music culture of Western North Carolina. (On that note, get the excellent Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina.) The News & Observer has been running a series of thoughtful stories on bluegrass as a form, a culture and a historical lens, attempting to educate a broad base of supposedly non-Southern readers about the state’s heritage of string bands and banjo icons. And last night, on the opening evening of World of Bluegrass 2013, the North Carolina Symphony attempted to do much the same with a 90-minute program that offered classical music, bluegrass music and—thanks to Béla Fleck’s banjo-and-symphony concerto The Impostor—music that combined the two.

This state’s symphony isn’t a stranger to bluegrass, of course: They’ve collaborated with The Red Clay Ramblers. One of their most beloved projects of the last several years, The Gathering, cast a kind-eyed cycle of folk songs by Greensboro writer Laurelyn Dossett in rustic orchestral splendor. There’s even an in-house North Carolina Symphony Bluegrass Band, featuring accomplished instrumentalists and symphony staffers Joe Newberry on banjo and Allyn Love on guitar.

Last night, this pedigree was on proud display. Newberry and Dossett sang together on The Gathering tune “Redbird,” with the symphony filling Meymandi Concert Hall with the bounding oomph written into the playful homecoming tale. And the five-piece Bluegrass Band segued between a few familiar numbers before meeting the symphony halfway into the Hoe Down of Aaron Copland, the American composer who borrowed liberally from this country’s folk music. In fact, bits of Copland’s Rodeo ballet served as programmatic bookends for each roots-oriented portion of the night, a move ostensibly meant to keep the focus on the symphony’s yearlong mission and to remind us that we were, in fact, in a proper concert hall.

click to enlarge Béla Fleck - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARTIST
  • Photo courtesy of the artist
  • Béla Fleck
Actually, that’s something that the strangely apologetic music director Grant Llewellyn did throughout the night—remind the crowd that this was a symphony, and that the combination of bluegrass and classical remained somewhat mystifying. “Of course you know that Raleigh is the true spiritual home of bluegrass,” he said, welcoming the IBMA and fishing for the laughs that he got. “Take that from a Welshman.” The self-deprecation was cute the first time, but Llewellyn kept at it. He castigated the sedate choice of a Copland waltz after the titillating “Redbird,” and he dubbed himself “the impostor” as he welcomed Fleck to the stage in a moment of utter oversell—“He’s crossed every genre known to man,” which, of course, he hasn’t. When Llewellyn introduced Dossett and Newberry, he made sure to trot out their bona fides before they themselves trotted out. Throughout the night, the conductor seemed incapable of letting the music speak for itself or his musicians for themselves, as though we hadn’t all signed up for the same thing.

Llewellyn was correct, though, in saying that most had come for Fleck and his concerto, the evening’s finale. Written in 2011 as a commission for the Nashville Symphony, The Impostor is a sort of coming-of-age tale for the banjo, a three-part piece in which the banjo steadily accepts that it’s just not like the other instruments. If that sounds a bit after-school special, it is: Many of Fleck’s arrangements felt hollow and unimaginative, at least for the symphony. Where he excelled, of course, was with his banjo. During the first movement, his uninterrupted flurry of notes suggested the “continuous music” of Ukrainian composer Lubomyr Melnyk; in the third movement, we heard Fleck, the proud offspring of bluegrass, digging into and then against his roots. The notes for The Impostor suggest, “No familiar models for such a piece exist.” I don’t know that Fleck’s is now a model, but it’s at least a suggestion that this idea—the symphony surrounding the banjo—is one worth exploring.

At the end of the performance, Fleck remained at the middle of the symphony. Their instruments were down, but his was up. He dazzled with a long and intricate vamp on “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” turning impressive melodic tricks, fits and starts with a 70-year-old Gibson Mastertone. He might’ve overstayed his welcome a bit with a superfluous second encore, but after Llewellyn’s sycophantic introduction, perhaps he supposed he needed to evidence his own worth.

World of Bluegrass is here to stay in Raleigh, at least for three years. Having the symphony around to welcome them each time seems like a perfect fit, given IBMA’s professed interest in stretching its scope and demographic and given the symphony’s obvious interest in the music of the state that pays it. In the future, they needn’t kowtow, though, or to treat bluegrass more like a stranger showing up unexpected than a familiar if distant cousin. After all, as Ross Grady mentioned yesterday on the Internet, it’s not like the “BM” of IBMA stands for Black Metal. It stands for Bluegrass Music, and like Mr. Llewellyn, most of last night’s audience had heard plenty of it before.

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