Banjoist Béla Fleck.

Provided photo by Alan Messer

Internationally renowned banjoist and composer Béla Fleck returns to New Orleans this weekend to perform with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, for two concerts at the Orpheum Theater and one at First Baptist Church in Covington.

But this isn't the traditional format, with a soloist playing a work by a classic composer. Instead, audiences will hear Fleck debut an original work commissioned by the LPO, paying homage to New Orleans’ tricentennial.

Cokie Roberts to kick off free four-day lecture series exploring the city's 300 year history on Thursday

Banjo Concerto No. 3, "Louisiana Concerto," contains elements of jazz, gospel, brass band and Cajun music.

Several years in the making, the commission was funded in large part by the National Endowment for the Arts. Fleck was approached by LPO officials about writing the piece during his debut with the local orchestra in January 2014 and, despite a busy schedule, he agreed.

Fleck began by immersing himself in local sounds. 

“I started out by listening to a lot of New Orleans music," he said. "I went to a (local) record store and stocked up on all kinds of stuff, just to get me thinking and feeling in the spirit.”

Allen Toussaint was on that playlist, along with Professor Longhair, early 20th century drummer Warren “Baby” Dodds and the Balfa Brothers.

“Then I just started to write and see what I could do with some motifs that I pulled from here and there, and I embedded some different ideas into the piece,” Fleck said. “That doesn’t mean it’s going to sound like a jazz band or a Cajun band. This is still a classical work, but it’s going to have some New Orleans music written into the DNA of it.

“This was an opportunity to reach outside of myself for some ideas,” Fleck added. “It was an honor to be asked to write a piece commemorating the 300th anniversary of New Orleans, and I wanted the piece to have at least some of New Orleans’ history written into it. I thought it was a great opportunity, since New Orleans is such a melting pot, musically speaking. So I let the piece write itself and be whatever the muse led me to make it.”

The muse led to drums, of course. “There is a significant block for percussion instruments and for bass clarinet,” he said. But all sections and instruments will have their part to play in the total work, he said. “Everybody’s in. They’re all factored in. I’m not shortchanging anybody here.”

The concerto is being recorded, with the expectation that it will be featured in a future Fleck CD release.

“That adds to the electricity of a premiere. We’re not just premiering it; we’re recording it for posterity," he said. "I’m glad that New Orleans is where we’re doing this because it’s written for them.”

Fleck’s upcoming appearance and the premiere of his commissioned work are a source of pride for LPO chief executive officer James William Boyd. Recently returned from the LPO’s well-received debut at New York’s Carnegie Hall, Boyd said, “To go to Carnegie Hall and immediately follow it with the world premiere of Béla’s new concerto is making this an amazing few weeks for the orchestra."

Also on the concert program are Inocente Carreño’s “Margariteña” and Ottorino Respighi’s “The Pines of Rome.” José Luis Gomez is the guest conductor.


“The Pines of Rome” and Béla Fleck’s “Banjo Concerto No. 3”

WHEN/WHERE: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, Orpheum Theater, 129 Roosevelt Way, New Orleans, and Friday, First Baptist Church of Covington, 16333 La. 1085, Covington

TICKETS: $20-$140 New Orleans; $20-$55 Covington

INFO: (504) 523-6530.