Under the baton of the principal conductor Giancarlo Guerrero, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra opened its season with a program featuring works by four American composers, beginning with Adolphus Hailstork’s An American Port of Call. This symphonic poem—or “concert overture,” as the composer has called it—is brass-and-percussion forward, and fittingly so given that the bustling piece is meant to paint the scenes of an American port city: 1980s Norfolk, Virginia. An energetic atmosphere was palpable throughout, a fitting exhibition of the orchestra’s prowess.
Most of the attendees in the sold-out concert hall had been lured in by the evening’s soloist, the banjoist Béla Fleck. The more cynical among us might suspect that the inclusion of Fleck, a winner of fifteen Grammys, amounts to an unsubtle public-relations gimmick on the part of NSO, but such an assumption would be mistaken. Though the banjo has been historically associated with jazz and bluegrass music, Fleck began composing a concerto for the instrument in 2010 as an earnest attempt to bring it into the symphony hall. He approached the project as a self-conscious outsider, consulting with NSO’s principals for guidance in writing parts suited to their instruments and closely studying concertos from the repertoire. The result is a composition that balances the classical, folk, and jazz traditions, and an egalitarian operation of the orchestra’s many voices that still maintains a steady focus on the solo instrument. That it is the first “classical” work composed by Fleck speaks to the adaptability of his particular genius.
The concerto’s title, The Impostor, is expounded upon in three movements that imagine the instrument’s covert “Infiltration” of and “Integration” into the orchestra before its eventual exposure, “Truth Revealed.” The first movement’s mild, unassuming introduction from the woodwinds gives way to a booming, dark passage featuring strings, brass, and percussion before the banjo enters on a simple theme, set in gradual conversation with the orchestra before gradually permeating and expanding. Occasionally, the banjo’s seductive power pulls elements of the orchestra away from a classical mode and toward folk or jazz idioms. The orchestration suggests the influence of Stravinsky, Bartók, and Copland. The solos largely meld into the whole, except for moments where Fleck claims a bit of the jester’s privilege, poking fun at the seriousness of the concerto form. Fleck’s Impostor concerto is one that deserves wider performance and appreciation.
Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, in its 1945 orchestral-suite version, came next. An attempt was made in the program notes to connect it to Fleck’s composition by remarking that the banjo is an instrument identified with Appalachian culture. The “Appalachia” of Copland’s composition, however, is more accident than intention. He was initially commissioned to compose a ballet score for the choreographer Martha Graham; the story of the work’s development is too complicated and tedious to rehearse here, so let us merely say that the imposition of the ballet’s setting among pioneers in western Pennsylvania came somewhat late in Copland’s compositional process. Even the title itself was a last-minute addition by Graham. Nonetheless, the popularity of the ballet’s score was immediate: a Pulitzer Prize was swiftly followed by a request for an orchestral-suite version to be debuted in the New York Philharmonic’s 1945 opening concert. The 1945 orchestral arrangment of Appalachian Spring abbreviates the ballet score by about eight minutes and expands the number of instruments from thirteen to a full concert orchestra. The addition of brass enlarges the soundscape considerably.
In the hands of Guerrero and his orchestra, the piece was performed appropriately to the evening’s purposes. Given Nashville’s proximity to Appalachia, a certain sentimentality was evoked. Guerrero took the opening and closing sequences a bit slowly, but not so much as to make them schmaltzy. Copland discouraged such readings, but later admitted that over the years he too had had begun to associate the composition with the romance of the Appalachian landscape and springtime. The sweetness of the opening and closing sections was balanced by the energy of the piece’s more rousing and “patriotic” moments.
The final piece of the evening was another work with a complicated compositional history, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (1924). By the time Gershwin wrote Rhapsody, he had already found success publishing popular songs in the Tin Pan Alley tradition. But his popular success was apparently unsatisfactory—he wanted to write orchestral works as well. Lacking the skills to do so, Gershwin handed the task of orchestration to Ferde Grofé, who took the piano sketches for Rhapsody and created a wildly successful arrangement. The work gained Gershwin more fame and emboldened the young man to ask both Maurice Ravel and Nadia Boulanger to teach him composition: both refused, allegedly for fear of ruining his unique, jazz-inspired ear, though concerns over taking on an already famous student might also have motivated their decisions.
This evening’s performance was unusual: Béla Fleck returned to the stage to replace Gershwin’s piano part with a banjo transcription. Of course, a banjoist fretting with one hand cannot deliver as many notes as a pianist can play with two hands, so Fleck had to carefully select which secondary notes to emphasize. Fleck’s interpretation of the work seemed tasteful. I say “seemed” because, for most of the performance, the orchestra drowned the soloist out beyond appreciation—and this despite amplification. The orchestral dynamics should have been adjusted to accommodate the limitations of the solo instrument. Such mishaps are bound to happen when venturing into uncharted waters. Nevertheless, the solo voice of Rhapsody in Blue is so naturally of the piano that it perhaps does not warrant revisiting in other forms.
Fleck recovered after the muddled Rhapsody in Blue by performing a series of small pieces as an encore. With his signature humor, he alluded to his self-declared “infiltration” of the symphony hall with a few bars of John Williams’s “Imperial March” from Star Wars. This was followed by some virtuosic improvisation leading into the theme to The Beverly Hillbillies in both minor and major keys.
In a concert of works by American composers only, I found myself seeking thematic coherence deeper than mere national identity. The works by Hailstork, Gershwin, and Copland are self-consciously “American,” though in differing ways. In Copland’s suite, there is a reserved, modest vision of what it means to be an American; even by 1944, however, that conception of America may have already been considered an artifact. Contrast that modesty with the bombastic, confident motives on display in the works of Hailstork and Gershwin. If the common confidence and Puritan reservedness of Copland’s American vision was a relic in 1944, the end of the “American Century” similarly buried the individualist confidence of Gershwin and Hailstork’s pieces. Fleck’s work captures the uncomfortable atmosphere of contemporary American identity: that of self-doubt. But this self-doubt is not without hope. In Fleck’s work, the individual persists toward his triumph—a triumph found through conversation with tradition and the thoughtful reunification of the soloist with the whole.