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Béla Fleck: Juno Concerto – Griff – Quintet for Banjo and Strings: Movement II
Béla Fleck (Banjo), Brooklyn Rider String Quartet: Johnny Gandlesman, Colin Jacobsen (Violin), Nicholas Cords (Viola), Michael Nicolas (Cello), Colorado Symphony, José Luis Gómez (Conductor)
Recording: Boettcher Concert Hall, Denver, Colorado and The DiMenna Center for Classical Music, New York City (2016) – 50’57
Rounder #1166100200 – Booklet in English (Distributed by Bucklesweet Media)

Indeed, this Béla Fleck album is somewhat alluring and will mildly help detract misconceptions of an instrument oft-judged for being quartered inside America’s South, opening hearts and minds in one unique sojourn. While a visit is warranted, at times, it’s somewhat flummoxing. Generally, the overall mood is a relevant, cemented 21st century abstraction.

The biggest asset inside the CD is the Juno Concerto with its sense of raw, organic strength. “Movement I” opens with a three chord ascension hinting at Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Variants of this motif-remark frequently resurface after spotlighted stints on banjo. While Béla Fleck’s fretwork bursts with precision, it allows one a better opportunity to understand how an instrument can beautifully meld into a classical composition. At times we reminisce toward Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. Pockets of bass ostinato help accentuate Béla Fleck’s dexterous plucking. There is a sort of “chaptered compartmentalization” seeking out dialogues between banjo and other specific instruments (in both strings and woodwinds.) The movement has structure and sense.

In forwarding notes Mr. Fleck is quoted, “This time I wanted to improve my writing for the orchestra, to create more and better slow music, and for the solo parts to focus on flow and things that come naturally to the banjo...” Mr. Fleck’s depiction couldn’t be better articulated than in the beginning of “Movement II.” To the point, the music adds a glance of solemnity and contemplation. Though somber, to say the least, the passages are lyrically beautiful. Moments of grandeur suddenly wrap up the conclusion with broad brass annunciations that harken back to Maurice Jarre and his lustrous orchestration of Lawrence of Arabia. Though these moments are powerful, they are fleeting. This is where the CD best epitomizes the outer reaches of the banjo in an orchestral setting.

Immediate in “Movement III” is the imposing and snowballing crescendo (ref: opening music to Jaws); the layout is quite the attention-getter, poised to set up another banjo interlude. The lines present a diverse climate whereby resorting back to the composition’s first movement. Béla Fleck’s might, again, is tinctured with peppered responses by brass along with equal stints of woodwind reflections and sprites of clarinet. The musicianship of Mr. Fleck is filled with dizzied fascination, an apex that wraps around and back to the opening crescendo and then with the banjo craftsmanship coming to light bearing more of a Bluegrass commentary to than its earlier classical development.

Evasive though far from instantaneous likeability, Griff re-emphasizes Fleck’s original take. Strains of distant Tennessee hills coalesce despite dichotomous folksy linearity that dot at quasi-Henri Dutilleux astringency. Obliquely speaking, there’s a charge of transcendental energy.

We point toward a more reflective Béla Fleck when landing upon the Quintet for Piano and Strings. Through violin, viola and cello one hears a wistful and tender balance of peace and restfulness. The thematic avenue keeps resurfacing with a sense of rustled grounding. It relishes the slowest of tempos, and it captures introspective qualities.

Much can be learned about Mr. Fleck and his innovative interpretations. It shows how the banjo can adapt and re-invent itself with doses of more sophisticated maniérismes.

Christie Grimstad




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