The Cleveland Orchestra crossed genres for a set of unique concerts this past week. Merging the tightness and well-planned instrumentation of an orchestra with the twang and looseness of a banjo, the orchestra crossed a boundary that some may applaud while others may be left feeling alienated.
The ‘Fridays@7 ‘ concerts seek to appeal to a crowd less familiar with the Cleveland Orchestra, and by pulling in banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck, they accomplished their goal. The sold-out Severance Hall was full of orchestra regulars, Fleck fans, a few families and local college students looking for entertainment.
The night began around 6:00pm in the smaller music hall with Harmonia, a group that provided the folk sounds of Austria, Slovenia and Eastern Europe. Although the hall was only half-full for the performance, the crowd made their presence felt with syncopated handclaps, foot stomps and the occasional sing-a-long of “na na na na.”
At 7:00pm the night shifted in Severance Hall’s main auditorium for a performance of John Adam’s “Short Ride In A Fast Machine,” Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” and lastly Bela Fleck’s “Banjo Concerto.”
The first piece, Adams’ “Short Ride In A Fast Machine,” displayed the elements for which Adams is most recognized for – minimalist techniques and dramatic settings. Tension and anxiety were built with a repetitive beat on the wood blocks, something that was hard to ignore. A very epic sounding and short (around five minutes) piece, the work sounded like something you would expect during a major sporting event or the Olympics. Images of gears, pistons and winding turns filled my mind as the horns whirled and guest conductor Giancarlo Guerrero moved about his podium with energy and command.
Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” was the second piece to be performed. One of his most notable and popular works, this piece was a near polar opposite to Adams’ piece. Much more playful, the audience could relax and let the imagination carry them to the French capital in the 1920s. The orchestra did a fine job on this familiar piece, keeping it precise and passionately emotive.
The Fridays@7 concerts do not have an intermission, rather they move continuously. Removed from the previous and following night’s itinerary was Copland’s suite from “Billy the Kid,” leaving only Fleck and his “Banjo Concerto” left to be performed.
In the final piece, two things that are not normally associated with one another, came together in hopes of accomplishing a goal. Whether or not they did, is up to the individual. Throughout the piece, I kept asking myself, “Does a banjo belong?”, “What is Fleck trying to fulfill?”, “Will it be appreciated?”.
Out of the three pieces performed, this one was the hardest to understand and follow. Consisting of three movements, the tones from the banjo began with more loose, intermittent sounds, but by the final movement had evolved into something more familiar, as if the banjo had found its place. Following the final note, the crowd rose for a standing ovation, although it may have been fraudulent or pretentious. I believe some of the crowd truly did enjoy the piece, while others simply applauded in order to appear as if they understood Fleck’s goals. As a fan of Fleck, I appreciated the work, but believed the previous two were more captivating.
After a brief exit, Fleck and Guerrero returned to the stage for an encore where familiarity and comfort were much more present. Full of improvisation, a take on “God Bless Ye Merry Gentelmen,” and quite possible the theme to Beverly Hillbillies, Fleck made his banjo an extension of himself and even gave the audience something to laugh about with bluegrass licks and a few strange faces.
After Fleck’s performance, the audience exited the auditorium into the Bogomolny-Kozerefski Grand Foyer where a jazz trio featuring a trombone, bass and drums was dishing out New Orleans inspired jazz. Present in the set were call-and-response vocals, improvised solos, and the popular Mardi Gras tune “Iko Iko.”
After a handful of songs, Fleck joined the trio for a few numbers before eventually adding Fleck’s wife Abigail on vocals. Personally considering this moment as the evening’s highlight, the audience was also enjoying themselves with dancing, singing, and libations.
The Fridays@7 concerts are truly something special in the city of Cleveland. They should be enjoyed by music enthusiasts and people who simply looking for lively and entertaining night out.
The next Fridays@7 concert will take place on January 18th and will feature violinist Joshua Bell, Beethoven’s “Violin Concerto” and Bartók’s “Dance Suite.” Also on the schedule for this month are Christmas and Holiday concerts and a New Year’s Eve Concert & Dance with the Cleveland Pops. For more information visit ClevelandOrchestra.com.