Banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck has now tried his hand at nearly every genre imaginable, stretching the possibilities for an instrument once known almost solely as belonging to bluegrass and trad jazz into new and fascinating territory. Be it with his groundbreaking fusion work with the Flecktones, his first foray into straight classical music with 2001’s Perpetual Motion or his collaborative work in nearly every style of contemporary popular music, Fleck has virtually come to define the modern notion of a banjo player, albeit one who happens to be a voracious musical polyglot.
Juno Concerto, his second foray into the world of solo composing for classical concertos featuring banjo and orchestra following 2011’s The Imposter, finds Fleck having become all the more comfortable with the form and role of classical composer. Using the birth of his son Juno with wife and fellow musician Abigail Washburn as the basis for his creative inspiration, Fleck’s work offers a wide range of emotional components. There are moments of whimsy and playfulness scattered throughout the more contemplative, slower passages that form the bulk of the work. Fleck noted this latter in particular, stating, “I wanted to improve my writing for the orchestra, to create more and better slow music,” adding, “and for the solo parts to focus on flow and things that come naturally to the banjo, rather than attempting to do the nearly impossible, constantly.”
And yet that is essentially just what Fleck does and has done for more than four decades now. A true virtuoso, Fleck has taken the instrument to unprecedented new heights through his tireless creativity and complete lack of stylistic boundaries. As with any virtuosic performance, it can become too easy to be swept away by the artist’s instrumental prowess. But Fleck, capable of astonishing runs and lightning-quick passages, here plays with a greater level of musicality, placing the banjo within the context of the orchestra when not engaged in the featured solo passages. This approach shows him to be that rare virtuoso capable of both musical humility and an undying collaborative spirit.
Opening with a Copeland-esque, horn-led fanfare on “Juno Concerto: Movement I,” Fleck makes clear that Juno Concerto is in many ways going to be larger and more ambitious than anything he has done before. Lush string swells and rising melodic lines rest against a backdrop of cymbal crashes that suddenly, as though the entire work has opened onto an isolated valley, drops out as Fleck enters with his singular banjo tone. Having conceived and composed the work himself, it would have been easy for Fleck to continue to showcase his unmatched talent on the instrument.
Yet he largely refrains from anything flashy or showy in nature, instead putting his efforts into the overall orchestrations, allowing the members of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra to be just as integral to the performance’s overall success. Finely matched and well up for the task at hand, the CSO under the direction of José Luis Gomez nimbly navigate the more intricate passages while also bringing an emotional resonance to the more subdued moments. “Movement II” in particular, with its rubato banjo introductory statement allows for the orchestra to slowly seep into the overall sound. Sustained string tones slide slowly into place, creating an underlying base from which Fleck begins to build a more playful melody that is eventually ceded entirely to the orchestra before embarking on an extended banjo solo that once more gives way to the full orchestra before quietly fading. While enjoyable, it’s all fairly rote and lacking any sort of immediately identifiable melodic stamps that would have made this a singular work.
Compositionally, however, his is a lushly layered approach that calls to mind, in addition to the aforementioned Aaron Copeland, the arrangements of Gil Evans in tandem with Miles Davis on albums such as Sketches of Spain and Quiet Nights. In all, Juno Concerto offers a far more nuanced approach to composition than the opening bombast afforded by The Imposter. Here Fleck has settled comfortably into the role of composer, taking his time and allowing the music to breathe rather than fill each and every space with as many ideas as possible. Having already successfully shown that he can write a respectable concerto, Fleck takes a step back as the lead instrument, allowing the banjo to sit within the orchestration rather than run concurrently as it tended to do on The Imposter. In this, Juno Concerto is a far more mature, profound work from a real and genuine talent.
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