Béla Fleck and Colorado Symphony's 'Juno Concerto'

Monday, March 06, 2017

'Bela Fleck: Juno Concerto' 'Bela Fleck: Juno Concerto' (Rounder)

Perhaps no musician has done more to transform the image of the banjo than Béla Fleck. As the leader of his improvising fusion outfit, the Flecktones, he reminds audiences that the banjo can play more than bluegrass, incorporating influences from rock, funk, jazz and more. His side projects have journeyed yet further afield, even dipping into the mainstream classical repertoire to reclaim those European masterpieces for this distinctly American instrument.

On his new album, both Béla Fleck fans and classical music-lovers can hear him stretching the instrument even further, with the premiere recording of the Juno Concerto – his second concerto for the banjo – composed and performed by Fleck himself, accompanied by the Colorado Symphony under José Luis Gómez. 

Inspired by another creative adventure, the birth of his son Juno, the concerto nods towards the conventions of the symphonic form with a three-movement, fast/slow/fast structure, and the opening chorale even hints at Coplandesque Americana. But ultimately this piece is all Fleck: intentionally or no, even his lightly funked-up use of the percussion battery hints at the unconventional synth-drum stylings of the Flecktone known as Future Man. 

And the piece as a whole is a vivid exploration of the character of Fleck's instrument, from the lonesome sound of a melancholy melody on unaccompanied banjo, to Vivaldian passagework in decidedly non-Baroque time signatures and modalities, to the inevitable – and no less gratifying for it – third-movement hoedown.

Juno Concerto illustrates not just Fleck's virtuosic way with 16th notes, but also the surprising variety of colors he can pull out of his instrument, which are even more remarkable on the chamber movements that close the album: Griff, and the second movement from his early Quintet for Banjo and Strings, both featuring the equally adventurous string quartet Brooklyn Rider. The more intimate setting of these movements, and Fleck's play with the palette that results from this decidedly unconventional combination of stringed instruments, offer an even deeper glimpse into Fleck's artistry as composer-performer.

Béla Fleck: Juno Concerto
Rounder | Released March 3

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