“Virtuoso” seems an almost an anemic term to describe Béla Fleck when it comes to what he can do with a five-string banjo. But until a more appropriate superlative can be coined, we’ll just say that Fleck’s performance Saturday with the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra was an extraordinary thing to experience.
Fleck has taken this ancient, humble and often unfairly derided instrument in myriad directions, from bluegrass to jazz to classical to world music, applying his exceptional technical skills with a profound musicality and not a little impish wit.
Saturday night’s concert at the Tulsa PAC featured Fleck as the soloist for the “Juno Concerto,” the second such work he has composed. Fleck named it after his first child, whose birth coincided with the birth of the concerto, but there is nothing child-like about this music.
From the opening Copland-esque fanfare, which was a dominant theme for the first movement, to the nods toward the bluegrass classic “(Goin’ Up) Cripple Creek” in the third, Fleck’s concerto evoked all manner of American music, so that the concerto musical language mirrored the “melting pot” of cultures that is this country.
It is also full of complex, challenging music for orchestra and soloist, that also highlighted every section within the ensemble, from the powerful, active music for the percussion section, to the oboe solo, played by principal Lise Glaser, that paired with Fleck’s sensitive playing in the second movement, to the raucous passages in the third movement punctuated by solo notes from piccolo and tuba, respectively.
Fleck’s own playing was exemplary, and while the concerto offered him ample opportunity to show off his skills, these solos arose organically from the music, rather than being moments simply to show off.
Fleck returned for an encore, an extended solo spot that ranged from pure — and often playful — improvisation to a Ugandan folk song that uses Psalm 136 as a text, to a section of “The Ballad of Jed Clampitt,” better known as the theme to “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Yee-doggies, indeed.
Guest conductor Gerhardt Zimmermann always has an excellent rapport with the Tulsa Symphony, and he guided the orchestra through the concerto with a fine mix of sensitivity and brio.
Zimmermann also brought out the best from the orchestra in the other works on the program, two of which were new to most of the audience. Louise Farrenc’s Overture No. 2 in E-flat Major was a pleasantly effervescent piece, while the Overture to “Colas Bruegnon” by Dmitry Kabalevsky was a boisterous blast of joyous sound.
All this came to an end with Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story,” which highlights most of the unforgettable melodies of the score to this Broadway classic, and which Zimmermann and the Tulsa Symphony performed with all the lush romanticism and urban bustle one could want.
Photos: Tulsa Symphony’s ‘Unforgettable’
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