Classically American: Bela is Back

by Leah M. Abel

The world-renowned banjoist joins the Peoria Symphony for an evening of quintessential American music.

On Saturday, April 12th, the Peoria Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Maestro George Stelluto, will take the stage at the Peoria Civic Center Theater—but this will be no typical concert. The program for the evening, American Classics with Béla Fleck, will feature the internationally acclaimed jazz, folk and classical musician in a celebration of American music by the likes of Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland, as well as the banjoist himself.

Born in New York City and named after composers Béla Bartók, Anton Webern and Leoš Janáček, Béla Fleck was first attracted to the banjo when he heard the Beverly Hillbillies theme song played by the late, great Earl Scruggs. At 15, he acquired his first banjo, given to him by his grandfather. Since his recording debut in 1979, Fleck has released 12 solo studio albums; formed the progressive bluegrass band, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, with bassist Victor Wooten; written and performed for eight years with New Grass Revival; and won a total of 15 Grammy awards. A testament to the eclectic nature of his music, Fleck has been nominated in more categories—from country and pop to jazz, bluegrass and more—than any other artist in Grammy history.

A fan since his teenage years, Maestro Stelluto was inspired by the great banjoist to compile a mental list of artists with whom he would like to collaborate should the opportunity ever arise. Now that time has come, and the conductor looks forward to his performance with Fleck with great anticipation, calling it an “artistic first date.” Stelluto knows Fleck’s performance will be top-notch and has every confidence in his orchestra, noting the face-to-face interaction with guest musicians will bring an unknown factor of serendipity. He’s hoping to experience the same kind of enthusiastic rapport with Fleck as he did recently with guest violinists Charles Yang and Anna Lee.

In what Stelluto refers to as a play on words, the American Classics program explores the uniquely American “classic” inventions of folksong, cinema, Broadway showtunes and, of course, Fleck’s ubiquitous banjo. The concert will feature Bernstein’s “On The Town – Three Dance Episodes” and Copland’s “Old American Songs" and "Music for Movies,” as well as the Illinois premiere of Fleck’s “Concerto for Banjo and Orchestra.” And that will not be Fleck’s only Peoria performance: on April 11th, he will become the first world artist to appear at the PSO’s Student Concerts, a series of educational outreach performances serving more than 5,000 area students each year.

The PSO’s performance with Fleck will be well-suited to concert-goers of all ages, Stelluto notes. “A place like Peoria is the ideal place to do something like this, because it has a population of people who are sophisticated in their appreciation of music… They can hear us do a Beethoven or Mahler symphony with great attention and focus… and then at the same time, turn around and go to a jazz show.” That eclecticism will be on sharp display in April when this fusion of classical music and classic Americana reverberates throughout the Civic Center Theater. a&s

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