Béla Fleck has single-handedly turned the banjo into a virtuoso solo instrument that can comfortably play with jazz combos, African trios, string quartets and orchestras. In 2010 upon completing his first concerto for banjo, The Imposter, he followed up with a companion piece for banjo and string quartet, Night Flight Over Water, which he recorded with the adventurous string quartet, Brooklyn Rider.
Night Flight Over Water is the centerpiece of the program this weekend when Béla Fleck and Brooklyn Rider appear in Chenery Auditorium in the Fontana series.
Like many of his genre-crossing friends - such as fiddler Mark O'Connor, bassist Edgar Meyer, and mandolinist Chris Thile - Béla Fleck jumped at the chance to write and perform new works for America's finest classical groups, from orchestras to string quartets.
Growing up in New York City, Fleck attended a performing arts high school and played french horn and guitar before adopting the banjo as his main instrument. It's demanded his attention ever since.
"I love the instrument so much. If I really wanted to play guitar, I would go play guitar," says Fleck. "But I don't want to play guitar, I want to play the banjo, but I want to take things I can learn from these other instruments, and put them on the banjo, and see what they bring out of the banjo that hasn't been heard before. That's the fun of it."
Like no one who came before him, Béla Fleck gave the banjo an adventurous new role to play in many kinds of music with remarkable success. Today he can boast more Grammy nominations in more categories than any other performer. What we don't hear about is the painstaking, sometimes uncomfortable work that goes into each new project.
"I just have to go back to square one to figure out how to play this new thing. I just have to sound terrible and trust and hope that I'm going to come out of this trough sounding good again," Fleck explains. "That's where your ego takes a beating. But when you come out the other side, and you're sounding good at something you haven't done before, it's a great feeling."
Back in 2010, Béla Fleck approached the Nashville Symphony about writing a concerto for banjo and orchestra, which turned out to be a big, colorful work he called The Imposter. The banjo plays the hero in a story worthy of Hans Christian Anderson.
In the first movement, the banjo is maybe attempting to infiltrate a masquerade party and nobody quite realizes that the banjo is in the middle of the orchestra. In the second movement [the ruse] is working, I call that one "Integration," (the first movement I call "Infiltration.") The third movement is "The Truth Revealed," in which the banjo suddenly reveals that it actually is a banjo, and starts playing some Scruggs licks. At that point there's a chase. The banjo runs out of the castle, perhaps with the King's silver, or a golden scepter. Behind the castle there's a creek, fast-running water down the mountain, and the banjo jumps in there and escapes, and that's where "Night Flight Over Water" comes in.
Night Flight Over Water is the companion piece Béla Fleck wrote to go with The Imposter concerto on the album released by Deutsche Gramophon. It was written with Brooklyn Rider in mind, a string quartet with a passion for new music. Night Flight Over Water is the centerpiece on Saturday night's concert, surrounded by lots of smaller works.
"I've been incorporated into several of Brooklyn Rider's pieces. We're doing a piece from the Flecktones, and a Newgrass Revival bluegrass/Celtic piece. They're going to play some quartet stuff, and I'm going to play some solo stuff - so the night goes by rather quickly with a lot of variety," says Fleck.
Bela Fleck will join Brooklyn Rider on stage in Chenery Auditorium Saturday night at 8 p.m. In the full-length interview, Bela Fleck talks about collaborating with Brooklyn Rider; how he's inspired by his friend Edgar Meyer to keep re-inventing his instrument, and how he prepared to write for string quartet.