Review: Two Belas — Bartok and Fleck — shine during CSO performance

Béla Fleck
Chattanooga Times Free Press

By Mel R. Wilhoit

In an inspired burst of marketing, the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera combined the creative geniuses of two oddly-named Belas (the dead classical composer Bela Bartok and the very alive, banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck) to conclude the classical concert season at the Tivoli on Thursday evening.

Hungarian composer Bartok was represented by “Dance Suite” (1923), composed for the 50th anniversary union of the cities Buda and Pest. It consists of six movements based on various folk melodies. Bartok seems to have never met a melody he liked so the work is filled with short, dancing, melodic fragments. The result: Maestro Kyoko Dan ushered listeners through an instructive tour of Central European folk-inspired music with a multitude of impressive woodwind work, led off by principal bassoonist, Eric Anderson.

To continue the Hungarian connection, Hungarian-born Franz Liszt’s “Les Preludes” followed. This mini, one-movement symphony continually transforms a fanfare-like motive that originally achieved fame on German radio during WWII. While I am no fan of Liszt, I found this to be the most musically satisfying experience of the evening. Bold, noble themes and languid, romantic melodies-led by Gordon James and his French Horn section-reminded listeners why this work is duly famous.

After the intermission, the second Bela took the stage — literally. He’s the multiple Grammy winner and star of the Flecktones — an insanely popular ensemble mixing bluegrass with everything else.

His “Concerto for Banjo,” in three traditional movements, premiered in Nashville, and this performance was only the third with orchestra. From the outset, Fleck treats the banjo more like a musical instrument than simply a bluegrass instrument. He puts it through its paces and demonstrates its potential far beyond its “Beverley Hillbillies” persona. There are certainly a few captivating moments and flashes of virtuosic playing, but the focus seems to be on the intrinsic quality of the music itself (sounding at times like Bartok, Prokofiev, or Gershwin) rather than on the novelty of a bluegrass instrument paired with an orchestra.

Only time will tell whether Fleck has managed with the banjo what Larry Adler has done with the harmonica or Mark O’Connor with the fiddle — demonstrate its musical potential beyond its role in pop culture. The audience certainly enjoyed the work and awarded performer and composer with a standing ovation.

Fleck responded with an extended solo, inspired by his journey to Africa. He concluded with an omage to his idol, the late Earl Scruggs, who popularized the modern banjo and taught the country to sing “about a man named Jed.”

Masterworks concerts are recorded and broadcast on WSMC at 7 p.m., the Wednesday following the performance.