A Few Words With Béla Fleck

Art & Society was fortunate to catch Fleck for a few moments and ask him some questions about his upcoming performance in Peoria.

I know you’ve played in Peoria before. Do you have any particularly fond memories you’d like to share?

I have special memories of traveling to Peoria with the banjo-playing songwriter John Hartford in the mid-1980s. I also remember a special co-billed show with Alison Krauss and The Flecktones, which was a very rare occurrence. She actually insisted on opening for us! I greatly look forward to playing with the symphony and experiencing a different side of Peoria.

What are your impressions of working in smaller metropolitan areas like Peoria?

I usually have more fun in the smaller markets, where there is palpable excitement about musical events because they don’t happen as often. Simply put, folks in the smaller markets are less jaded. 

What are some of the challenges of working with musicians you haven’t met, when you have limited time to acclimate to each other?

It’s always amazing how fast orchestras rehearse, and yes—some of that is economically driven. The cost of paying 80 people for rehearsing severely limits the time, so the orchestra and the conductor really have to be sharp, and use the existing time intelligently. It’s a challenge putting together a complex concert like this, but I do love the experience.

Your upcoming program with the Peoria Symphony Orchestra is called American Classics, featuring compositions by Bernstein, Copland and yourself! Could you talk about your interest in uniquely American music and how your work embodies that aesthetic?

I guess I’m as American as they come. Banjo, which is seen as a uniquely American interest, has its roots in Africa. Folks like Gershwin brought fresh energy to classical music from outside of its walls. I am a mongrel mix—a bluegrass player named after classical composers who loves jazz, African and Indian music. America is a melting pot, and I am deeply melted. Or is it warped? 

What inspired you to compose the “Concerto for Banjo & Orchestra,” and what was your composition process like?

I was looking for ways to interact with the great classical players, and there was no existing repertoire along the lines of what I envisioned. I stole some master classes by co-writing a couple of pieces with Edgar Meyer, who I believe is a great American composer. Watching him work demystified many aspects of composing and made me brave enough to make the dive. Luckily, there were people who were willing to bet on me enough to commission the work, namely the Nashville Symphony. And then I received a second commission for a banjo and string quartet work. Together, these pieces made The Impostor album that Deutsche Grammophon was interested in putting out. I’m pretty amazed to have one of the top classical labels behind me. My next commission is for a chamber orchestra and banjo piece. I look forward to continuing to build repertoire for banjo and classical ensembles. a&s