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Béla Fleck and the Philadelphia Orchestra @ SPAC 8/21/13

08.22.13
Giancarlo Guerrero, Béla Fleck
Times Union

By Joseph Dalton

SARATOGA SPRINGS – Banjo superstar Béla Fleck had an auspicious launch to his latest tour, appearing as soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Wednesday night.  He’ll continue in the guise of a classical musician throughout the fall as he crisscrosses the country in support of his new disc on Deutsche Grammophon

No matter how skillful the player, a banjo will never quite fit in with the refined classical world.  That’s part of the fun and Fleck acknowledges this with the title of his concerto, “The Impostor.”  It turned out to be a remarkably nuanced and skillful composition.

To appreciate what was happening, one had to put aside expectations of grand statements from a soloist, as in typical concertos for violin, cello or piano.  But the banjo, especially in Fleck’s hands, can scamper around the sonic spectrum with nimble ease.

Early in the opening movement, “Infiltration,” the banjo writing seemed stuck in a repetitive groove as the spotlight went to brief flourishes from different orchestral instruments.  But soon the banjo delivers the main themes.  When those snatches of melody are passed around the orchestra, the sound of the banjo lingered in the ear. How fast Fleck gets under our skin!

There’s more of a traditional dialogue in the second movement, “Integration,” and the orchestral statements are a bit heavy, even clichéd.  Yet the solo work is fascinating, with sophisticated chromatic turns that jump about the instrument’s range.

During the third movement, “Truth Revealed,” the woodwinds call out the stranger in their midst by offering hints of the blues.  The banjo stays coy and drama builds as the drums role and the cymbals crash.  Eventually the banjo drops its disguise and some phrases of blue grass bring things to a happy ending.

There was no hiding the hillbilly but still plenty of smart playfulness in Fleck’s delightful encore, an improvisation on “The Ballad of Jed Clampett.”

Conductor Giancarlo Guerrero had the whole program well in hand, starting with Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, and continuing to a Latin themed second half consisting of Falla’s “Three Cornered Hat,” Suite No. 2 and Rimsky Korsakov’s “Capriccio Espagnol.”

With a million facial expressions and body gestures, Guerrero is a trip to watch.  But close your eyes and you’ll hear showmanship and accuracy both.  Without chatting up the audience, he still exudes personality while keeping the focus on the music.  SPAC should keep bringing him back regularly.

Continuing the Latin theme, there was an unexpected encore, the Intermezzo from “The Wedding of Luis Alonso” by Gerónimo Giménez.