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Fleck to perform banjo concerto

When banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck set out to write a concerto for the instrument and an orchestra, he felt like an imposter.

Although Fleck has won 15 Grammy Awards for his genre-crossing music, the banjo — with its bluegrass associations, is not found in regular orchestras. Adding to the challenge, Fleck had only primitive music-reading skills and relied on banjo tablature.

Tablature is a simplified musical shorthand often used by people with no musical training who are teaching themselves to play the guitar, banjo or ukulele via YouTube videos. 

"So how was I going to write a piece for 80 instruments, none of which read banjo notation?" he wondered.

Fleck embraced the banjo's outsider status in the classical music world, composing a concerto in which he plays the banjo in a classical style in the beginning, but then lets the instrument reveal its bluegrass roots.

"The banjo is the hero in this play and is trying to avoid the truth of who he is, but in the end cannot avoid it," Fleck says.

To overcome the challenge of writing for orchestral instruments, he used a composing software program that translated his tablature notations into actual musical notes.

Fleck and the Britt Orchestra will perform his aptly named "Impostor Concerto" at 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 8, at the Britt Pavilion, 350 First St., Jacksonville. Reserved seating costs $45, lawn seating $32, $10 for ages 18 and younger. Tickets can be purchased at the Britt box office, 216 E. Main St., Medford, online at www.brittfest.org or by calling 800-882-7488.

Classical guitarist Tye Austin will perform in the Britt Performance Garden from 6 to 6:45 p.m. At 7 p.m., Eric Teel of Jefferson Public Radio will host a pre-concert conversation with Fleck  in the Performance Garden.

The evening's program also includes a short piece presented by composer Sebastian Change titled "Walking" before the concerto, and a performance of Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68, will follow at the Britt Pavilion.

Born and raised in New York City, Fleck's first instrument was the guitar. He remembers watching "The Beverly Hillbillies" in the early '60s and feeling the bluegrass sounds of guitarist Lester Flatt and banjo player Earl Scruggs flowing into his brain.

Fleck switched instruments in 1973, when his grandfather bought him a banjo. He attended New York City's High School of Music and Art, where he had to study French horn because banjo wasn't offered. Fleck was left to seek banjo lessons from outside sources.

He later delved into other genres with his banjo, including jazz and classical. His 2001 classical album "Perpetual Motion" — created with bassist Edgar Meyer — won two Grammy Awards. The duo composed a double concerto for banjo and bass, as well as a triple concerto with Indian tabla master Zakir Hussain.

In 2011, the Nashville Symphony commissioned Fleck to write "The Impostor" concerto, which he has performed across the country.

Despite decades of genre-crossing collaborations and performances, Fleck says he still sometimes feels like an outsider who doesn't belong — although writing "The Impostor" helped him embrace the banjo's roots.

"In the first movement, especially with the solo cadenzas, the banjo is at its most 'classical,' even though I wasn't trying to emulate any particular composer," he says. "But you can hear an evolution in my own writing of the piece as it goes on. As it continues, I become more comfortable with the idea that this can be whatever I want it to be, and it ends by returning to my roots in bluegrass and Earl Scruggs."


Bela Fleck, the Grammy Award-winning musician who's taken his career all over the musical map, has written a concerto for banjo, 'The Impostor.'