Béla Fleck's Banjo Concerto
Having doled it out piecemeal up to this point, we'll put Béla Fleck's new Concerto for Banjo and Orchestra, "The Impostor," together and give it a complete spin during the noon hour in Friday's NEPR classical music. So, how did Béla Fleck do in his first attempt at large-scale classical composition? Please tune in and let me know what you think. Here'a Fleck himself previewing the work before its 2011 concert premiere.
I will admit that my expections were low, perhaps unfairly so, when I gave the Concerto my first listen. Would we have another classical wannabe in way over his head, like Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello in their boring and amateurish "classical" works? High hopes were not exactly encouraged by Fleck's lengthy booklet note, containing such cringe-worthy passages as this:
Since I was unencumbered by any formal understanding of classical form, I strove to find a different approach. I'd be spontaneous and reactionary, and not knowing where it was all going to end up until I got there. I'd basically write the piece intuitively, and just keep trying stuff until I like it. Rather than stressing knowing what I was doing, I'd stress not knowing what I was doing. I hoped this would read as a stylistic choice and yield a piece that had my personality embedded into it.
Oy gewalt, where to start? Perhaps, in the interest of blog length and blood pressure, I had better simply refer you back to comments I and a composer friend, one very much "encumbered" by "formal understanding of classical form," made in response to a similarly clueless defense of ignorance by Paul McCartney, upon the release of his ballet Ocean's Kingdom. Same to you, Béla.
But then, the proof of Fleck's Concerto, like any piece, is in the music, not the words. And when it comes to the music, things get complicated. "The Impostor" is better than I expected, especially from a composer who admits he "had never actually written every single note" of a piece before. If one takes Fleck at his word when he said he received no help in composing it,"The Impostor" is quite an accomplishment.
Does that make it worth the listener's 36-minute investment of time? Well, that's Problem No. 1: "The Impostor" is much too long, and would have been twice as good at half the length. The thematic material of its three movements, though not without potential, just doesn't hold up to what Fleck subjects it to. And that's Problem No. 2: What Fleck subjects his themes to amounts to about twice as much repetition as development. He's hardly the first composer guilty of that sin, and to his credit, does transform and contrast his themes in some interesting ways. But my patience for the thematic material, especially the first movement, ran out well before the music did.
Now for some good things. As one can imagine, Fleck's own banjoing, fleet of fingers and sweet of sound, fits smoothly into a concerto context (caveat below). The orchestral scoring, to my ears, contains many more felicities than gaucheries. There's some nice wind writing, especially, including a crazy solo for contrabassoon. The harmonies range far and wide, with plenty of spicy dissonance redolent of (and perhaps influenced by) Fleck's namesake, Béla Bartók. The textures are quite varied, including a fair amount of conterpoint (interweaving of separate musical lines). And though one might have expected a lighthearted romp from a banjo concerto, filled with hoedowns and hootenannies, Fleck crosses us up with a work of serious, even dark, mood. The second movement ("Integration") in particular creates and sustains an intriguing atmosphere somewhat reminiscent of the second movements of such different works as Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 (supposedly based on the legend of Orpheus and the Furies at the gates of Hades) and Gershwin's Concerto in F.
But maybe "The Impostor" is too serious for its own good, which leads to Problem No. 3: I didn't get the thrills, chills or carthartic payoff from "The Impostor" that I expect from a Concerto, especially one written by the performer himself. Think of your favorite "Composer Concertos" (to coin a term) by the likes of Paganini, Liszt, Wieniawski and Rachmaninoff. None of these works are just about virtuosity. But the daredevil element, in which the performer seemingly transcends what is humanly possible, is essential to the works' enduring appeal. When listening to "The Imposter," I kept waiting for the banjo to take off (this is Béla Fleck playing, after all) and the piece to catch fire. They never did until the very end, when it was too late.
So, my mixed verdict: Despite its flaws, "The Impostor" is a serious attempt at a serious work. Despite its virtues, "The Impostor" ultimately left me cold. Perhaps if Béla Fleck had "encumbered" himself of more "formal understanding of classical form," he would have written a much better piece.
Would you like to hear something much better in the same vein? Give a listen to the 2nd and 3rd movements of Juilliard-trained, Nashville-based violinist-arranger-composer Conni Ellisor's "Blackberry Winter," a three-movement concerto for "Tennessee Music Box," mountain dulcimer and string orchestra. We've played the complete work many times on NEPR, with excellent listener response. This is what happens when inspiration and intuition meet up with skill. Beautiful!
P.S. Having listened to "The Impostor" one more time, I think I need to revise my estimation upward. For one thing, the piece didn't just stand up to that additional hearing (my sixth, I think). It actually gained in stature and significance, especially its final two-thirds. Like all good music, "The Impostor," with each additional hearing, revealed more of its nature: ambitious, adventurous, striving, wide-ranging, serious in purpose but joyous in tone. And while my engagement with the piece wavered at times, it never fully flagged. Yes, the piece is still too long and repetitive, especially in its most "classical" movement, the first. But there's something about "The Impostor" that I can't quite shake. So, let me turn my qualified thumbs-down into a qualified thumbs-up. Better yet, let me suggest that one's relationship with an important artwork (which this is) is a complicated, fluid thing, and that the critic, who often speaks as if he had the last word, isn't always right. (Added September 9, 2013)