Béla Fleck, regarded as one of the best banjo players in the world, recently visited Florida State University and played in the Ruby Diamond concert hall. Accompanying him were the Knights, a largely orchestral group of skilled musicians, praised for their “relaxed virtuosity and expansive repertory” as the New Yorker states. The combinations of these talented musicians were a pleasure for both the audience and the performers alike, as this was the ninth and final performance of the Knights tour with Béla Fleck.
The show opened with the Knights playing the Barber of Seville Overture, perhaps the only “traditional” piece that was heard all night. Their director, Eric Jacobsen, noted The Looney Toons and the way that the cartoon constantly reimagined classical music.
After this, Béla Fleck stepped out. Without a word, he took the audience’s breath away by playing one of his biggest hits, Big Country. A song originally done in a bluegrass style, The Knights showed their dynamic range of skills by meshing bluegrass and orchestral styles to accompany Béla.
The Knights closed out the first half of the performance with the three movement piece entitled Chamber Symphony by John Adams. The piece was a high energy abstraction, which the composer based heavily off of Looney Toons, (the artistic director Colin Jacobsen mentioned it was not originally meant to be a through line), even going so far as to name the lively third movement Roadrunner.
The second half of the performance opened with the group performing The Imposter: Concerto for Banjo & Orchestra, a three movement concerto composed by Béla Fleck himself. The first movement, Infiltration, spilled out dark, ominous, dissonant tones. It seemed Béla Fleck wanted to prove that the banjo is not always a happy and folksy instrument. The second movement, Integration, sounded as if it had Spanish, Western, and even Greek influences—it felt like a story being told around a campfire. The third movement, Truth Revealed, carried on some of the dark tones. However, this one picked up the pace, showing influences from both modernist and jazz music. The piece did well to show off not just the musical talent of Béla Fleck, but also his technical abilities as he played rapid fire notes with clarity and ease. This powerful piece struck a final note and garnered a standing ovation from the audience, though the show was not nearly done.
The next piece went off even further from traditional tracks. An Italian operatic piece entitled Se il mio nome saper voi bremate was sung by The Knights violinist Christina Courtin. Written by Rossini in the early 1800s, this piece was reimagined for the night into a duet between a soloist and a banjo player. Perhaps the simplest piece of the night, it was performed with no less beauty than the rest.
The show then went into another orchestral piece entitled The Ground Beneath Our Feet, a piece written by multiple members of The Knights. It takes a single Chaconne Bass line and weaves it into a variety of differing genres and styles, ending with Courtin picking up a ukulele and singing to close it out. This fifteen minute piece is the title track of The Knights newest album, and a live recording of the song can be heard on Youtube. This was supposed to be where the concert ended—the audience certainly thought so—and we gave yet another standing ovation. However, the group on stage seemed more concerned about having fun with the final performance of their tour, and treated us to an encore.
The Ground Beneath Our Feet:
They proceeded to set up Béla, their percussionist equipped only with a tambourine, and their stand-up bass player at the front of the stage. The trio then entered into a “twisted Bach sort of thing,” as Béla so eloquently put it. It turned into somewhat of a jazz style jam session between the bass player and Béla, and involved the percussionist getting more tones out of a tambourine than I ever thought possible.
The last piece that was played was a piece written by New Grass Revival, one of Béla’s old bands. It was a piece with a bluegrass base featuring heavy Irish influences. Béla stated, “Can these guys gnaw down on some bluegrass?” Gnaw they would, he said, “But first, a trip to Ireland.”
Orchestral instruments and the banjo are seen as very traditional in their fields and have struggled to remain relevant in contemporary times. However, by taking us on a trip through the world and its styles and genres, musicians like Béla Fleck and The Knights keep not only themselves, but also their instruments and their music ever interesting and ever relevant. Eric Jacobsen captured the idea well when he spoke of Béla by saying, “He is a virtuoso not only for his musical ability, but for the fact that he is constantly reimagining his instrument and himself.” This reimagining can be a struggle for some, but it shows what “traditional” musicians can make of themselves and their instruments. They create new and beautiful works of art that garner a total of three standing ovations from an adoring audience.
A live performance of Big Country, performed by Béla Fleck & The Flecktones:
By ROBERT COCANOUGHER / Managing Editor