Banjo superstar and 16-time Grammy winner Béla Fleck can jam with just about anybody.
With bluegrass icons like Earl Scruggs. With jazz musicians. With African thumb piano players. With Indian tabla players. With his wife, fellow banjoist Abigail Washburn.
“But I couldn’t do that with classical musicians, and that frustrated me,” he said.
So he wrote his own banjo concerto.
His first piece was commissioned in 2011 by the Nashville Symphony in Tennessee, where Fleck lives. He titled it “The Impostor” because giving the banjo a home in the classical world was uncharted territory, he said.
“It was all about making believe I could write a banjo concerto and then doing it.”
Fleck also performed “The Impostor,” with the South Carolina Philharmonic, which co-commissioned a second concerto from Fleck to be performed at the Koger Center on Saturday, Nov. 12.
A successful Kickstarter campaign last spring allowed the S.C. Phil to join the Canton, Ohio and Colorado symphonies and the Louisville, Kentucky orchestra as co-commissioners of the “Juno Concerto” – named for Fleck’s 3-year-old son. It makes its Southeastern U.S. debut at the S.C. Phil’s “American Originals” show. Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to “Candide” opens the program, and Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony closes it.
Before the performance, Go Columbia spoke with Fleck, arguably the world’s premier banjo player, about the joys and challenges of writing classical banjo music.
Q: Why did you name the concerto after your son?
A: I kept playing with different titles as I was finishing it. I kept thinking that this piece was written since Juno was born and everything has changed in my life since becoming a father. It was a way to stamp a time and place onto this piece – what was important to me in my life and what was going on.
I made a commitment to be with Juno and not be a touring musician who’s always gone. A big part of that was going on tour with my wife, Abigail, and taking Juno along on the bus. When they went to sleep and I was wide awake, I would get out my computer and work on this concerto. It kept me sane during that transition to becoming a father.
Q: What did you learn from the first banjo concerto, and have you made any adjustments this time around?
A: A lot of my adjustments are unconscious, but they’re there. I performed the first about 50 times with different orchestras around the country. I learned the things that were really hard about that piece and the things that flowed. In the first concerto, I tried to do tricky, unusual things that the banjo is not known for. I was trying to say, “Look, the banjo can do all this!” It was stressful because I wrote such a hard banjo part.
This time, I decided to write a piece that was more about flow. Things that are so natural on the banjo that wouldn’t sound good on any other instrument – I even thought about calling it “Ripple and Flow.” There are these continuous cascades of notes. The banjo part is just as good, but it works in a different way. This one is maybe 10 percent easier.
Q: How would you describe this concerto’s sound to someone who has never heard a banjo with a symphony orchestra?
A: The closest thing would be to think of other concertos, maybe a guitar concerto, and if the writing is done perfectly, it’s like a giant versus one tiny person. There’s this this little sound by itself, and then the orchestra comes roaring in. And it’s exciting. But I wanted to write in ways that incorporated more simultaneous playing. That takes a little more effort to work out how to play all together.
Q: This performance was co-commissioned by several symphonies. Will you be playing with each one?
A: Yes. The amount of time it takes to write one of these pieces is so huge. This piece was written in stops and starts over the course of eight months. Knowing you have four performances is a great push.
Q: What other projects are you working on right now?
A: Abigail and I are starting our second album. I’m working on completing a recording of the “Juno Concerto,” and I have new duet project with Chris Thile, the new host of “A Prairie Home Companion.” And I recently brought back Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, which has been kind of dormant for a few years.
If you go
Bela Fleck with the S.C. Philharmonic
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 12. There will be a pre-concert lecture at 6:30 p.m.
WHERE: Koger Center, 1051 Greene St.