The fourth concert of the Johnson City Symphony Orchestra season on Jan. 9 features world-renowned banjoist Béla Fleck and the JCSO performing “The Imposter,” a concerto Fleck composed himself for banjo and orchestra.
Considered a milestone in American composition, “The Imposter” is the first piece of serious orchestral music ever written by a non-classical composer featuring the five-string banjo. The work was originally commissioned by and performed with the Nashville Symphony in 2011.
Recognized for his banjo virtuosity, Fleck has won 15 Grammys and garnered more Grammy nominations (about 30) in more categories than any other artist in history. He’s known for his work with the Flecktones, an instrumental group he founded in the late 1980s. But Fleck has also collaborated separately with various genres of musicians around the globe.
He brazenly crossed the line into classical in 2001 by collaborating with bassist Edgar Meyer on the work, “Perpetual Motion.” In 2003, the duo also wrote a double concerto for banjo, bass and the Nashville Symphony. Then, in 2011, Fleck composed “The Imposter” concerto, which he has since performed with orchestras across the country.
The banjoist, now age 57, has confessed that writing an orchestral score is extremely challenging for him, since he never received formal composition training. He overcomes the shortcoming by writing orchestral parts in tablature, the system used to show fingerings for stringed instruments, such as the banjo. Fleck then transcribes the parts into conventional music notation. He has also used a software program called Sibelius to develop the score.
In previous interviews, Fleck has explained the conceptual narrative that underpins “The Imposter.” In the first movement, "Infiltration," someone sneaks into a masquerade wearing a mask who isn’t supposed to be there; the individual is disguised and outside his element, said Fleck. In the second movement, "Integration," the score is slower and more melodic, signaling that "everyone gets comfortable with each other." By the third movement, "Truth Revealed," bluegrass emerges – or what Fleck calls the banjo's typical image – and the impostor is unmasked.
In many ways, the story mirrors Fleck’s own innovative attempts to blend bluegrass into other musical genres.
A native of New York City, the musician-composer began playing banjo at age 15, inspired by the theme song from “The Beverly Hillbillies” television series, performed by musicians Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.
He attended New York’s High School of Music and Art, where he studied banjo privately, experimenting with new sounds, techniques and genres – particularly jazz. Following graduation, he joined the Boston-based bluegrass band Tasty Licks.
Fleck later become part of the group New Grass Revival, with which he performed and recorded throughout the 1980s. He formed Béla Fleck and the Flecktones in 1988.
In addition to “The Imposter” concerto, the JCSO will also perform “Appalachian Spring,” a ballet commissioned by choreographer Martha Graham and composed in 1944 by Aaron Copland.
Tickets are on sale now for the Jan. 9 JCSO concert, which begins at 7:30 p.m. in the Mary B. Martin Auditorium of Seeger Chapel at Milligan College. JCSO’s concert season will continue on Saturday, Feb. 6, with an unprecedented joining of the JCSO with Milligan College’s Orchestra in recognition of the school’s 150th anniversary. The formal season concludes March 5 with a guest appearance by Sonora Slocum, principal flautist for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.
Concerts are partially funded under an agreement with the Tennessee Arts Commission. Johnson City Press and Jet Broadcasting are media sponsors for the 2015-2016 subscription series. Visit www.jcsymphony.com or call the symphony office at 423-926-8742 for more information.