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Bela Fleck Returns to Canton for the World Premiere of his Second Banjo Concerto

rehearsing with CSO
Bela Fleck rehearsing with the Canton Symphony Orchestra in 2014 for a performance of his first banjo concerto

Bela Fleck, widely recognized as one of the world’s greatest banjo players, will perform the world premiere of his second banjo concerto this weekend in Canton.

The Canton Symphony Orchestra performed Fleck’s first concerto in 2014 and invited him to write another.

In today’s State of the Arts, WKSU’s Vivian Goodman talks with the multi-faceted musician whose been nominated in more categories than anyone in the history of the Grammy Awards.

Bela Fleck has won 15 Grammys over 21 years including Best Contemporary Jazz Album, Best Pop Instrumental Album, Best Country Instrumental Performance and Best Classical Crossover Album.

He does it all with the instrument he loves best.

“I fell in love with the banjo when I was a little boy, and I heard the Beverly Hillbillies on TV. But I grew up in New York City, and I was exposed to all kinds of music. I liked it all and I wanted to learn to play it all on the banjo. And that kind of is my whole story in the short version.”

Canton Symphony Orchestra's "Scenic Moments" on March 19, 8 p.m. Umstattd Performing Arts Hall

  Crossing over to classical
A big part of Fleck’s story is classical music. In 2014, The Canton Symphony Orchestra performed his first banjo concerto, "The Impostor."

“I think they’re a fantastic symphony. Because I’ve played the piece now I think over 40 times with different orchestras. Sometimes I play with very well-known ones, and sometimes I play with ones that are a little more on the fringe. And they’re one of the best that I’ve played with.”

We wondered why he named it "The Impostor."

“Well if you think about what I am as a banjo player who is constantly trying to insert the banjo into music 

hugging banjo
Credit courtesy of The Canton Symphony Orchestra / Canton Symphony Orchestra
Canton Symphony Orchestra
Bela Fleck received his first banjo as a gift from his stepfather at the age of 15.

that it doesn’t come from. I often feel like I’m an impostor. In classical music, the banjo is often the butt of jokes, dismissed as a serious instrument. But once you get to know the instrument you discover that it’s not a laughing matter.

Strumming through history
“The banjo came to the United States through the slave trade. The slaves played it on the plantation and it gradually worked its way into mainstream culture to the point where there were banjo orchestras in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

"And it was part of the birth of jazz music and Louis Armstrong’s early bands. And then eventually this incredible form of music cropped up in the ‘40s called bluegrass music and the banjo had a renaissance and a rebirth in the hands of Earl Scruggs, who started the three-finger picking, which got me hooked some 30 years later.”

Commissioned by the Canton Symphony Orchestra, Bela Fleck has written a second classical concerto, "The Juno," and named it after his son.

“The one thing that’s really changed the most in my life since the writing of 'The Impostor' is having a son.”

Fond remembrance of the Kent State Folk Festival
Fleck’s 3-year-old, Juno, often goes on the road with his parents. Abigail Washburn, also a banjo player, tours with her husband as a duo. She first performed with him in our region in 2006 when their Sparrow Quartet played the 40th annual Kent State Folk Festival.

“Cello, violin, and two banjos. And at that time we didn’t tell anybody that we were a couple. We just didn’t want that to be what the show was about. Yes, that was a great gig. I remember it very well. I loved playing there."

with Abigail Washburn at the Grammys
Credit Canton Symphony Orchestra
Canton Symphony Orchestra
Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, his wife, accepting their 2016 Grammy award

Fleck will return to Northeast Ohio this summer to play Cain Park in Cleveland Heights.

Flecktones Reunion
“Yeah, it’s a great spot. And that’ll be with The Flecktones, my band of I guess it’s 25, 26 years now. Although we’ve been on hiatus for the last few years, we’re coming back together for a few weeks because we love each other and we miss playing together. .... It’s always been one of our favorite venues, Cain Park.

“So these are two great things for me to be doing. I’m thrilled that I can play with a great symphony, and also play with a great jazz group, or whatever you want to call us, in the same region. It’s going to be fun.”

Canton Symphony Music Director Gerhardt Zimmerman is in complete accord.

Gerhardt Zimmerman
Credit Canton Symphony Orchestra
Canton Symphony Orchestra
Canton Symphony Music Director Gerhardt Zimmerman will conduct the world premiere of Bela Fleck's Juno Concerto.

“It’s fun and it’s great to work with someone like Bela. You think of maybe, well you know, bluegrass, country. Are they serious? Do they know the music and everything? Let me tell you he knows what’s going on. I think Bela is first-class, and I’m really looking forward to it.”