Composer works to make the classical world safer for banjo music _lowres

Bela Fleck

A banjo player named for three classical composers, Béla Anton Leos Fleck celebrates both bluegrass and classical sounds with his original music, to be performed in the New Orleans area from Jan. 8-10.

Fleck will be the featured artist with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra in New Orleans on the 8th and in Covington on the 9th with his original work, “The Impostor Concerto: A Concerto for Banjo and Orchestra.”

On Jan. 10 he will be part of a chamber quintet with another original piece titled “Night Flight Over Water.”

LPO Music Director Carlos Miguel Prieto conducts the New Orleans and North Shore performances.

Also on the evenings’ programs are Three Dance Episodes from Bernstein’s “On the Town” and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World.”

The chamber concert at the Contemporary Arts Center will feature Fleck with violinists Kate Withrow and Hannah Yim, violist Ila Rondeau and cellist David Rosen. Also on the program is Dvorak’s “American Quartet.”

Named for Béla Bartok, Anton Dvorak (or Webern) and Leos Janacek, Fleck was born in New York City. His stepfather was a cellist who frequently played chamber music at home.

“I’ve always been around classical music,” said Fleck, a multiple Grammy Award-winner in the country, pop, jazz and world music categories. “I got a good bit of classical influence through osmosis. Just being there and soaking it up, you hear this great music and it works its way into you.”

But he sees himself as a pioneer at bringing the banjo into an orchestral setting. The instrument, part of New Orleans’ jazz legacy from the beginning, originated in West Africa and was brought to the Americas by enslaved people; it’s not a typical feature of symphonic music.

“I am probably the only banjo player who plays with orchestras on a regular basis and plays his own concerto,” he said. “So I feel like I’m making the banjo a little safer in that world. ... I just wanted to do something I had never done before, and I think it’s an honor to be a banjo player sitting in front of an orchestra, being the soloist. A great honor.”

Fleck will perform two original compositions with the LPO and the chamber quintet. “The two pieces are connected,” he said.

Commissioned by the Nashville Symphony, “The Impostor Concerto” was written first and recorded on the Deutsche Grammophon label.

“This piece is the culmination of many years of getting up the nerve to see if I could write for banjo and orchestra,” Fleck said on his website.

However, when the recording was complete, there was time to spare on the record.

Pressed for something to fill the remaining space, Fleck came up with the idea of writing a piece for banjo and string quartet, which he titled “Night Flight Over Water.”

“I wrote every note for every person, and then I orchestrated it myself as well,” Fleck said. “That was probably a risky thing to do but it was part of the challenge of the whole work. I had a copyist who took what I wrote and made it legible, but I still chose who played what instrumental part.”

“The Impostor Concerto” expresses some of the insecurity of a banjo player on stage with the symphony.

“There is always that fear that someone will say to me, ‘You don’t belong here. Get off the stage right now,’ ” he said. “That’s the feeling of being an ‘other’ or an outsider or even an impostor.”