Banjo virtuoso's concerto is paired with other symphonies from the Britt Orchestra
Music, like politics, makes strange bedfellows — but a symphony orchestra and a banjo? Béla Fleck said it took years for him to get up the nerve to write a concerto — it's called "The Imposter" — for banjo and orchestra.If anybody could make that odd couple work it would be the 56-year-old Fleck, who has taken his instrument to more unlikely places, and been nominated for the Grammy Award in more categories than anybody else, ever.Friday night's Britt classical concert also featured Brahms' Symphony No. 1 and a short piece by a young California composer named Sebastian Chang.Fleck, who has won Grammies in genres from jazz to world music to country, was the center of an evening when new Britt Music Director and Conductor Teddy Abrams' catholic taste in programming was very much in view. As was the case with the classical season's opening concert last week, he paired something novel with a warhorse of the classical repertoire.Abrams and the Britt Orchestra opened the evening with Chang's "Walking," which had its premiere with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in November. The piece sounds like its title, with the clarinet setting a loose pace underscored by the percussion.After an absence in the middle section, the walking theme returns in somewhat different form. The feeling was fresh and a bit flip, and the thing worked through its musical ideas in five or six minutes.Then Fleck took the stage. His concerto roughly followed the usual form, which typically has a solo musician — maybe a pianist or violinist — accompanied by an orchestra in three movements in a fast-slow-fast pattern.In the first movement, "Infiltration," the banjo entered after an orchestral introduction and set out a hero’s journey. At this point, Fleck explained, the hero — the banjo — feels he doesn't belong in such company and is trying to avoid the reality of who he is. The banjo was at its most "classical" here.Fleck avoids the strict solo-orchestra-solo-orchestra-solo-orchestra pattern, choosing now a duet with the bass clarinet, now a duet with the violin. The banjo sometimes carried the theme, spinning out long runs accompanied by the strings, and at other times passed it off to the orchestra.There were several cadenzas, although Fleck's playing is so precise yet relaxed you couldn't tell whether they were written out or he was improvising. In the end the banjo returned to its true identity and its roots in bluegrass.While there probably wasn't a melody you'll be able to whistle, the thing was full of lovely passages, classic patterns and a bit of swing. The near-capacity crowd wouldn't let Fleck go, and he responded with a bright encore that riffed on Flatt and Scruggs' theme for vintage TV's "The Beverly Hillbillies."Abrams and the orchestra returned with Brahms' First Symphony, charging into the allegro with conviction. A rising figure in the strings was answered by a falling figure in the winds, accompanied by soft percussion.The allegro advanced its theme, developed it, changed it.The tenderness with which the orchestra delivered the Andante sostenuto contrasted with the storm that came before as Abrams' animated baton led the way through dialogues between different sections of the orchestra.In the Allegretto, Brahms slows from the frantic tempo of Beethoven's scherzos. The gentle themes for the strings and woodwinds were warmly romantic but never became merely frenetic.The easy-going third movement was all complex rhythms and interwoven textures, and a new melody popped up in the fourth, which also includes a lively folk tune Brahms apparently got from a shepherd.In the end, there were those triumphant melodies people always compare with the "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Brahms said he was paying homage to Beethoven, not stealing from him, as "any jackass could see." The coda delivered an unmistakable feeling of climax, right down to the trombones in the final measures.The symphony stands the test of time well. You can hear it as Brahms' farewell to the titanic figure of Beethoven rather than something derivative. Abrams' reading of the piece was warmly passionate but never without the guidance of a taut rein.