As the International Bluegrass Music Association makes its move to Raleigh, and in the days before the Wide Open Bluegrass Festival, the North Carolina Symphony abandoned the old adage "save the best for last" and welcomed one of the biggest names in contemporary bluegrass, Béla Fleck. Since his first album, Crossing the Tracks, in 1979, Béla Fleck has been challenging preconceptions of the banjo as solely a bluegrass instrument and establishing himself as one of the most versatile musicians of our time. With 30 Grammy nominations and 15 wins, Fleck's virtuosity on the banjo ranges from true bluegrass roots to the classical exploration of his solo concerto for the banjo and symphony orchestra, The Imposter.
Tuesday's one-night only performance included several pieces near and dear to the hearts of the NC Symphony and its supporters, with a composition from singer/songwriter Laurelyn Dossett, a working friend of the orchestra since the 2009 "Blue Skies and Golden Sands" tour, as well as works showcasing the talents of the NCS' own Bluegrass Band. Music Director Grant Llewellyn, celebrating his 10th anniversary in NC this year, deftly unified the program by interspersing movements from Aaron Copland's Rodeo. The opening performances of "Buckaroo Holiday" and "Corral Nocturne" thrilled audiences with bold and bright sounds of the first and nearly hypnotized with the stillness and quiet of the latter. The gentle melancholy of "Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still," featuring Joe Newberry (who moonlights as the NCS' communications director) and Laurelyn Dossett, gave the audience their first taste of traditional bluegrass sounds with a tune originated on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The NCS swung headlong into the boot-stomping "Redbird" from Laurelyn Dossett's song cycle The Gathering: A Winter's Tale in Six Songs, which featured most of the members of the Bluegrass Band. The full band –, Jacqueline Saed Wolborsky and David Kilbride, violins, Robert K. Anderson, bass, and Allyn Love, guitar – joined Dossett and Newberry with Chris Brashear on the mandolin for a proper hoe down with "Midnight on the Water" and "Bonaparte's Retreat." This was followed by the orchestra performing Copland's "Hoe Down" from Rodeo before Maestro Llewellyn welcomed Béla Fleck to the stage.
In The Imposter: Concerto for Banjo and Symphony Orchestra, Fleck explores the distinct voice of the banjo and how that voice blends with the classical sounds of an orchestra. In three movements, Fleck's banjo assumes romantic lyricism atypical to the twang associated with traditional bluegrass. The orchestra and banjo trade melodies as Fleck explores the capabilities of his instrument in the world of the symphony orchestra; while unfamiliar in the classical setting, the banjo finds its voice in the hands of this skilled virtuoso. By the third movement it seems that the musician is satisfied with the identity of his instrument as he returns to conclude the composition in the true roots of bluegrass.
While the North Carolina Symphony's collaboration with Béla Fleck lasted for one night only, the week's bluegrass celebrations do not stop there. The North Carolina Symphony continues to honor great musicians with the Duke Ellington Orchestra from September 27th-28th, while Béla Fleck joins his bluegrass contemporaries for the Wide Open Bluegrass Festival in Raleigh September 27th- 28th. (Note: Info on ticketing for these concerts is vague but here's the URL for the vendor: http://www.etix.com/ticket/online/venueSearch.jsp?venue_id=9656. That said, a call to PineCone might yield better results: 919-664-8302 or 919-664-8333.)