Saturday, September 20, 2014

Béla Fleck wows the Schnitz with 'Impostor'

Béla Fleck
There was a different crowd and atmosphere than is perhaps usual for an Oregon Symphony Concert when Béla Fleck played the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Saturday, September 13. This is no surprise considering the banjo virtuoso's crossover appeal; he has been nominated in more Grammy categories than any other artist in history.

After opening with a flashy Overture to Candide that wowed the crowd and made me wish the opera was forthcoming, OSO got down to the meat of the program: Fleck's concerto for orchestra and banjo entitled Impostor, premiered in 2011 with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. Fleck was warmly welcomed to the stage, and seemed humorously discomfited at being a part of the more formalized world of a classical symphony orchestra, while also amused at his own creation, much to the delight of the audience.

The first movement, Infiltration, began as a gentle threnody on the strings, around which was wound groups of somber, murmuring winds. This gave way to a sudden and violent tempest from strings and percussion as dissonant chordal motives from the orchestra were interspersed with fascinating polytonal fingerpicking by Fleck, who seemed as though he were wandering his own way, independent of the orchestral background before suddenly finding his way back. At times Fleck played an ostinato, and moments of levity found their way into the somewhat dark mood.

The second movement, named Integration, was more sparsely textured, and Fleck's playing at times was reminiscent of a gypsy guitar. After the initial exposition there were times when the thematic material of this movement was somewhat dull; it simply felt unnecessarily long. The last movement, Truth Revealed, was a pastiche of interesting ideas that somehow never found their way into a cogent overarching theme. It could be that was the entire point, but it was difficult to tell. There were some fine textural experiments, and an absolutely brilliant extended cadenza that showcased Fleck's dizzying virtuosity on his instrument. All in all, this was not the work of an experienced symphonic composer (as Fleck took pains to point out in the program notes), but it was rather a largely enjoyable and promising assay into a new sound world for this undisputed master of the banjo.

Big Country, one of Fleck's more traditional compositions, was aptly named, with a broad Appalachian feel, an expansive sweep of sound redolent with Americana. Although Fleck was mic'd, the orchestra often drowned him out in this work, something they'd avoided during the concerto. Fleck treated the delighted audience to a solo encore consisting of the most whimsical and virtuosic rendition imaginable of the theme from The Beverly Hillbillies.

The second half consisted of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's  boisterous and brief Danse Negre, and a suite from of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess arranged by Robert Russell Bennett at the behest of the composer. It began with a heartachingly lush andante, with muted statements from the trumpet sounding forth like dreamy echoes, and featuring a Summertime as languid and sultry as one could want.


Anonymous said...

Sorry, the 1943 "Symphonic Picture" was not completed by Bennett "at the behest of the composer" (who died in 1937), though they were otherwise very close. The SP was done "at the behest" of conductor Fritz Reiner (also a close associate of Gershwin, and one of his favorite conductors).

Lorin Wilkerson said...

Thank you for the correction.