In the summer of 2010 the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, home of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, commissioned Bela Fleck to compose a concert piece for banjo and orchestra. “How To Write A Banjo Concerto” (2011) is the intimate documentary film that follows Fleck step by step as he brings the project to fruition.
Since Nashville is also the home of the Grand Ole Opry, a splendid platform for banjo artistry, it was fitting that the world’s first composition for banjo and orchestra should be entrusted to Nashville resident Bela Fleck, the world’s primo virtuoso of this instrument.
Tony Trischka, Bela’s banjo teacher, said of him, “In a very short amount of time he sort of ‘osmosed’ everything I could show him.”
Zakir Hussain, who co-wrote the orchestral “The Melody of Rhythm” with Bela, noted, “To have the double duty of composer and soloist must be a daunting experience.”
Although he was raised in a musical family and studied at New York’s The High School of Music and Art, Bela does not read or write traditional musical notation, but banjo tablature, a skeletal shorthand that indicates note placement with staff lines representing the five strings. To compose a concerto for orchestral instruments, Fleck employed Sibelius, a software program that translates tablature into notation.
The circumstances of his upbringing underpinned his motivation for the concerto project. When he was very young, Fleck’s father, a professor of music, “flew the coop”, leaving Bela to be reared in New York City by his step-father Joe Paladino, a concert cellist.
“I’m not just a banjo player trying to write a concerto,” he says. “I’m Bela Anton Leos trying to write a concerto. Bela Bartok, Anton Webern, and Leos Janacek. The person who gave me all those names disappeared after I was born. I think that’s why this whole project is so important to me. Because of my father.”
When Trischka wondered aloud whether it might be time for Fleck to meet his father, Bela agreed. At the University of Maryland, “Some of the students were waiting in line at his father’s desk… Bela got in the line. When it was his turn, he said, ‘Hi. It’s Bela. I’m your son.’ It was a pretty intense moment.”
Early on in the project Bela makes it very clear to his wife Abigail Washburn, a singer, songwriter, and banjo player in her own right, that this concerto must necessarily be his own composition, arising from his own imagination, bearing his personal stamp. He was determined to divorce his concerto from the bluegrass music traditionally associated with the banjo, even to the extent of side-stepping the key of G Major.
“My banjo is tuned to G Major. That gives it that classic bluegrass sound. Mostly I avoid that sound intentionally.” Although he admits, “(G Major is) inevitable from the point of view that it’s a banjo concerto.”
To insulate himself against distractions, Fleck made two writing journeys, to Cannon Beach in Tillamook, Oregon during October 2010 and to Tecate, Mexico in January 2011.
Fleck found that daily runs along the shoreline and forest trails while listening to classical composers on his iPod stimulated his creative process.
“Right now Bela Bartok is in heavy rotation. I’ve never listened to him before now.” Fleck discovered that the music of Bartok (1881 – 1945), who fled his native Hungary to New York City in the 1930s to escape Nazi oppression, is “wild and complicated and tense.” Bela reads a Bartok biography, “The Naked Face of Genius”, that describes the composer strolling same streets where Fleck grew up.
Bela was averse to collaboration, but he did solicit advice.
“The first concerto I saw that was written and performed by a living human being was by Edgar Meyer. He’s my entree into this world, and without Edgar I wouldn’t be doing any of this stuff.”
Bela’s Nashville neighbor Edgar is a virtuoso double bass player and composer trained in the classical tradition. With impeccable gravity about music, Meyer can be counted on never to spare anyone’s feelings. In the short film “Obstinato”, about their 2004 “Music For Two” tour, Bela jokes, “I met Edgar in 1982. We were best friends from ’84 to ’86.”
There is feedback from Meyer and others who have performed with Fleck, including Chick Corea, Future Man, Chris Thile, Noam Pikelny, Marcus Roberts, Julian Lage, Greg Liszt, Steve Martin, and Earl Scruggs.
Bela complains, “Everybody hates the ending except…” (Flecktones percussionist) Future Man: “It’s pulling, pulling, pulling… Man, that’s the hippest classical ending ever!”
At the Schermerhorn Center, Bela requests consultations with Nashville Symphony Orchestra principals.
“When I go play with an orchestra, I really don’t develop the kind of friendships or direct contact that I have worth most of the musicians I play with.”
“It’s kind of unorthodox, but I asked them if there was a way I could go meet the principal musicians of each section, get explanations of what their instrument does, what they love about their instrument, and what I might think about in writing for their instrument.”
“With an orchestra you’ve got people sitting sixty feet from each other. There’s no possible way they can hear each other.”
Sam Bacco (Percussion Principal), on orchestral timing: “Great conducers really help. The speed of light is much faster than the speed of sound.”
Leslie Norton (Horn Principal) points out, “You’ve been driving the Jaguar… Really, this is an aircraft carrier. Nothing’s gonna turn on a dime.”
The third of Bela Fleck’s fathers, the man who provided his “first exposure to banjo”, was Earl Scruggs with his rendition of “The Ballad of Jed Clampett”, the theme song for The Beverly Hillbillies television series.
“Every time he played the banjo time would stop for me.” And, “Every time he played a song, he played it differently.” It would not be hyperbole to state that every player who has taken up the banjo since Earl Scruggs walked on stage at the Grand Ole Opry in 1945 has been influenced by Earl and his Scruggs licks.
“Without him I would never play the banjo, so I’ve dedicated my concert piece, the concerto, to him. And I think he’s coming to the show.”
One might think Bela Fleck’s place in the pantheon of banjo players past and present would relieve him of performance anxiety. It does not.
Having been asked to bring his banjo to an interview, he remarks wistfully, “They always want my banjo. I’m not good enough without the banjo. I’m like nobody without the banjo.”
Rehearsals with the orchestra are occasions of stress: “I am sucking,” he moans. “I want to kill myself.”
“It feels like the nightmare where I walk around in public with no clothes on.”
The day before the Nashville premiere, he laments, “I’m trying think about what to stress about now, where to put my stress energy.” He itemizes his worries:
1. Premiere of the concerto, sold out performance
2. Live worldwide telecast
3. Concert is being recorded for a CD release
4. Filming it for a documentary
5. Playing a 36-minute piece from memory – with a brand new cadenza
6. Peers, family, and friends will attend – and possibly Earl Scruggs as well
The premiere performance at Schermerhorn Center on September 22, 2011, conducted by Maestro Giancarlo Guerrero, presented in excerpts in the film, is a seamless success. The audience acclaims it with a standing ovation.
Best of all, Earl Scruggs does indeed attend. After the concert he tells Bela, “You had it all in your lap.”
“Well, I was petrified.”
Scruggs concludes, “Nobody else knew it but you.”
The documentary closes with a relaxed celebration brunch on the back porch of the Fleck residence with an infectious jam (“Come and Stay With Me”) featuring Abigail and Bela, Sam Bush, Future Man, Rayna Gellart, Jeff Keith, Kai Welsh, Jun Iwasaki, Brittany Haas, Lauren Rioux, and Bryn Davies.
“How To Write A Banjo Concerto” was directed by Bela’s half-brother Sascha Paladino. Fleck’s comments not expressed in the dialog are scrolled in white letters superimposed on the screen.
“The Imposter Concerto” was released on CD in 2013 accompanied by a three-movement piece for banjo and string quartet called “Night Flight Over Water” with Bela and Brooklyn Rider.
Earl Scruggs passed away on March 12, 2012.
Joe Paladino died on August 13, 2013.
Bela avows, “Abigail is easily the best thing that’s ever happened to me.” With the birth of their son Juno in May 2013, Bela Fleck is now himself a father.
(Review posted on Amazon.com on March 7, 2017)