New Classical Tracks: From Jed Clampett to Bartok

by Julie Amacher
August 28, 2013

Listen New Classical Tracks: From Jed Clampett to Bartok
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The Impostor (Courtesy of Sony)

"It was on the television show The Beverly Hillbillies. It came on and I was just...shocked.

"I didn't know what it was. And I was completely fascinated. And my brother was sitting next to me — we were both watching TV in my grandparents' room. And he had no reaction to it at all. I said, did you hear that? And he said, what? It meant nothing to him. But when people get the banjo bug, it's like that — especially if it's Earl Scruggs playing. Earl Scruggs was playing The Beverly Hillbillies theme, which is why it's so much more than a stupid TV theme. It's like a profound musical moment for the expansion of the banjo in America."

And that's how Béla Fleck first fell in love with the banjo at age five. "And when I was 15, my grandfather turned up with a banjo, right before I started high school, and said, here you go. You think you could do anything with this? And then it was in my hands and then there was nothing I could do but play it every second."

Béla Fleck has been playing bluegrass, jazz and world music most of his career. He's also dabbled in classical music, earning a Grammy Award for best classical cross-over album with bassist Edgar Meyer for their recording, Perpetual Motion, in 2001.

Fleck has taken his exploration into classical music a step further by composing his first banjo concerto titled The Impostor, which he dedicated to Earl Scruggs, who was in the audience when the work premiered in Nashville, Tenn., in 2011.

Béla Anton Leos Fleck is named for three great composers: Béla Bartók, Anton Webern and Leoš Janáček.

Fleck admits he didn't really embrace his namesake until he was in his 40s. "It wasn't until I started writing the Banjo Concerto that I started really listening to Bartok. And I just loved it. I don't know what took me so long. Let's talk about harmony — some pretty mangy stuff. It's like complex, weird, uncomfortable. And maybe as you get older you appreciate what's so incredible about that — just as you get older you can appreciate some of the more avant-garde jazz and different things like that."

When Béla Fleck first floated the idea of a banjo concerto to Nashville Symphony CEO Alan Valentine he was given a green light right away.

So, Fleck put on his composing hat and discovered it was a perfect fit, and a perfect challenge, "This has been a mammoth endeavor because it was so important to me that it wasn't...sucky. I'm making the case for the banjo as a musical instrument every time I pull it out of its home turf," Fleck explains.

You'll hear a few surprises in The Impostor, especially in the final movement where Fleck rearranges the original idea to create something completely different.

"That's an interesting section because I wrote a very simple monotonous line and then wrote this counterpoint for the bass clarinet to play against it. And then the original monotonous line got on my nerves so I replaced it with something very complicated for me to play. So the original framework that the whole section was built on was removed. It's almost like building a Gehry building upside down or something."

After completing the Banjo Concerto, the next project at the top of Fleck's list was a string quartet. Enter Brooklyn Rider, a genre-bending string quartet.

Fleck took about 20 ideas to this ensemble to see which one might become the groundwork for Night Flight Over Water, a quintet for banjo and string quartet, "But the problem was — everything I brought to them that they played, they made it come alive. So all 20 of the pieces were completely viable, which was wonderful and frustrating. What I realized was that I could write anything for those guys. And so I tried to revel in that, in writing for these guys."

Fleck says his new recording, The Impostor, is aptly titled because it describes how it feels to be an outsider. As a musician who attempts to cross-over into various genres, he says that's a familiar feeling. However, once again, Béla Fleck proves the banjo fits in quite well in the realm of classical music, and that as a composer Béla Fleck is no imposter.