Fall Guide 2011: Classical 

Béla Fleck: Concerto for Banjo With the Nashville Symphony

Category-confounding banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck breaks out his 1937 Gibson Mastertone at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center this month, to lead off the Nashville Symphony's fall classical series with the premiere of his Concerto for Banjo.

If that sounds anomalous, maybe you haven't followed Fleck's career too closely. His intense technical control always suggested chamber-music sensibilities — long before the ear-opening 2001 classical crossover album Perpetual Motion won critical acclaim and two of the banjoist's 14 Grammys.

And the range of Fleck's output is staggering. From his work with New Grass Revival, to his long-running electric group The Flecktones, to a project with African master musicians, he's shown a disarming indifference for stylistic boundaries, dispelling banjo stereotypes in one robust musical gumbo after another.

Even as a progressive-bluegrass whiz kid in the late 1970s, he recorded a rendition of Chick Corea's "Spain" and worked a Bach partita into his repertoire. "When I met [double-bass master] Edgar Meyer," Fleck recalls, "I had that one piece I could show off to him!"

Fleck teamed with Meyer in 1988 to write a quintet for banjo and strings, which he premiered with Nashville's Blair String Quartet and included on the same TV special that introduced the Flecktones. More recently, Fleck and Meyer have collaborated as composer-performers on two pieces for the Nashville Symphony, including one for the Schermerhorn Center's 2006 gala opening.

"Now," says Fleck, "I needed to see what I would do on my own," and the orchestra stepped up with a new commission.

The concerto is dedicated to bluegrass banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs, but don't expect a 20-minute hoedown. To prepare for the piece, Fleck says, he immersed himself in classical masterworks while reimagining the banjo as a part of the orchestra.

But then he composed freely without stylistic agendas. "I wanted this piece to be a continuation of my own musical expression, not some proof that I could write in a 'classical' style."

For those who don't manage to get tickets, the Sept. 22 performance will be webcast live from the Nashville Symphony's website. Sept. 22-24 at Schermerhorn Symphony Center

Don't Miss

Oct. 7-8: Nashville Symphony: Ax Plays Beethoven
Emanuel Ax, one of the greatest living classical pianists, joins the Nashville Symphony for Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2. Though it wasn't one of Ludwig's favorites — "It's not one of my best," he allegedly told a publisher — it's become a revered piece in the canon. Also on the program: Edward Elgar's In the South and Richard Strauss' suite from his opera Ariadne auf Naxos. 7 p.m. Oct. 6, 8 p.m. Oct. 7-8 at Schermerhorn Symphony Center

Oct. 13-15: Nashville Opera: La Traviata
For the first time in eight years, Nashville Opera mounts Giuseppe Verdi's classic opera about Violetta, a well-known courtesan (back when being a courtesan had a whole lot more cachet). Featuring Emily Pulley, Joshua Kohl and Grant Youngblood, all in their Nashville Opera debuts. 7 p.m. Oct. 13, 8 p.m. Oct. 15 at TPAC's Jackson Hall

Oct. 27: Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet
Arguably the most critically acclaimed wind quintet in the world blows into town, for a show sponsored by an anonymous friend of the Blair School of Music. The program includes works by Anton Reicha, György Ligeti, André Jolivet and Paul Taffanel. 8 p.m. at Ingram Hall, Blair School of Music

Nov. 9: Alias Fall Concert
Not only is Alias the most adventurous classical music group in town, it's arguably the most adventurous group of any genre. The Fall Concert features a piece by John Tavener for eight female vocalists and string quartet, Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 12 in D Flat Major, Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli's 1660 sonata "La Monella Romanesca," and two pieces by Kenji Bunch, one of the most respected composers in contemporary classical music. 8 p.m. at Turner Recital Hall, Blair School of Music

Nov. 17-19: Nashville Symphony: Mahler's Fourth/Richard Danielpour World Premiere
Nashville Symphony's May performance of Mahler's Second ("Resurrection") was widely acknowledged as one of the most transcendent moments in the orchestra's history, so there's good reason to be excited for Mahler's Fourth. Furthermore, it's part of Giancarlo Guerrero's mission to have the Schermerhorn gang become one of the few orchestras to have performed all of the Austrian composer's symphonies. And if that's not enough — a world premiere of Danielpour's Darkness in the Ancient Valley, featuring Grammy-winning soprano Hila Plitmann. This could be the gem of the season. 7 p.m. Nov. 17, 8 p.m. Nov. 18-19 at Schermerhorn Symphony Center

Dec. 2-4: Nashville Opera: Pagliacci
The sad clown rides again in Ruggero Leoncavallo's classic tale of love and death. Featuring Elizabeth Caballero, Todd Thomas, and in his Nashville Opera debut, Allan Glassman as Canio, aka Pagliacci. 8 p.m. Dec. 2-3, 2 p.m. Dec. 4 at TPAC's Polk Theater

Dec. 3-4: Laurence Lesser at Blair
One of the world's greatest living cellists, Laurence Lesser has taught at the New England Conservatory of Music since Gerald Ford was president. He'll perform the Six Suites for Solo Cello by Johann Sebastian Bach over two concerts. 8 p.m. Dec. 3 and 1:30 p.m. Dec. 4 at Blair School of Music's Turner Hall

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