Program Notes: Béla Fleck and Brooklyn Rider soar in “Night Flight Over Water”

Béla Fleck, a banjo virtuoso with 14 Grammys® and over 30 Grammy® nominations has worked in bluegrass, country, classical, jazz, and world music. Nominated for more Grammys® in more categories than anyone in music history, Béla has performed and collaborated with Edgar Meyer, Dave Matthews Band, Bonnie Raitt, the Grateful Dead, Yo-Yo Ma, Chris Thile, and many more. This season,he takes the stage with the adventurous string quartet Brooklyn Rider. At home in both clubs and concert halls, they have appeared in venues as varied as Carnegie Hall, the Library of Congress and SXSW. Much of the group’s desire to extend the borders of conventional string quartet programming comes from their longstanding participation in Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. In addition to their Norton Center performance with the Silk Road Ensemble in March 2013, Brooklyn Rider previously performed at the Norton Center with Yo-Yo Ma in 2008.  Learn more about this incredible concert before you go with the program notes below:

Night Flight Over Water (2012)*                                                                     
Béla Fleck, b. 1958

Tumbledown Creek
Hunter’s Moon
The Escape

Perhaps this piece is about an escape after having being found out, and ejected from high society? Maybe the banjo player even stole something on the way out, so there is a hot pursuit?

At any rate, I had survived the premiere of The Impostor, and found a record label that was interested in putting it out. The concerto was 36 minutes long, what would inhabit the rest of the CD? I had some discussions with various friends including Alexander Buhr from Universal Music, violinist Hillary Hahn, and my manager David Bendett. Of all my proposed ideas (which included composing solo banjo sonatas, percussion pieces, and duets with classical players) the one that had the most resonance to me was the idea of writing for banjo and string quartet. I knew this was a great untapped combination, from the years of listening to my cellist stepfather Joe Paladino playing chamber music, and also from a piece Edgar and I wrote together back in the early 1980’s, for the Blair String Quartet.

I started out writing Night Flight Over Water by composing a dozen or so sketches. I took these up North and Brooklyn Rider and I read through them together. The idea was that the ones that really worked out for this combination were the ones I would use to build the piece from. Unfortunately, these guys were so good that they made everything I had come up with sound amazing, so it was very hard to figure out what not to use. The good part is that now I knew that I could write virtually anything, and they would be able to make it come alive.Now I needed to figure out who I was writing this piece for. I asked around about the string quartet Brooklyn Rider, who I was told about by Neil Benson, my new classical agent at OPUS 3. The reaction was very positive from everyone I asked – these guys are really good at new music, and have a youthful sensibility that would make a lot of sense on a piece that likely would have many influences from outside of classical music. I listened to their music, and really enjoyed and respected their work. They were intrigued by the idea too – so it was on!

So I dug in and wrote the piece. At this point the Flecktones were on hiatus and I was touring Europe with the Malian Songbird Oumou Sangare, playing jazz festivals and touring with pianist Marcus Roberts. I had a couple of periods to isolate and write. One was in Amsterdam before the Oumou tour started, and the other was in Copenhagen. I did find myself enjoying writing on my computer with headphones, in restaurants, coffee joints, and parks. Something about watching people and maybe being a little distracted by the movement and humanity seemed to unlock my unconscious mind.

We workshopped the piece in August of 2012 in Stillwater, Minnesota. Workshopping it in this case meant doing several days of work rehearsing the piece followed by an informal performance. At the end of this, I was able to study what we had done, make some final adjustments and be ready for the recording in Pittsboro, North Carolina in Novem

ber of 2012. Emil Kang at Carolina Performing Arts helped us to connect with Michael and Amy Tieman at Manifold Studios, and we did an informal performance there before we began the recording process. This really helped us to feel the arc of the music, and give it a live feel in the studio.

– Béla Fleck

* This piece was commissioned by Clowes Memorial Hall of Butler University in honor of their 50th Anniversary and is set to premiere on November 15th, 2013.

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Culai (2011-2012)*
Lev ‘Ljova’ Zhurbin, b. 1978

The Game
The Muse
The Song
Love Potion, Expired
Funeral Doina (for Culai)


Bela with Brooklyn Rider 2in the song “Balada Conducatorlui“, have been widely seen by over 200,000 viewers on YouTube, in concerts worldwide, as well as in Tony Gatlif’s film “Latcho Drom”.“Culai” was the nickname of Nicolae Neacsu, the elder violinist and vocalist of the wild and infamous Gypsy ensemble, the Taraf de Haiidouks. Culai’s trademark tugging of the bowhair across a string,

Nicolae Neacsu died in 2002, and in writing this piece, I took much inspiration from the way he seduced the audience with his gaze, told stories of Gypsy life in Romania, and played violin, equally with the innocence of an amateur student, and the smirk of a professional who’s been on the road for decades and had seen everything.

I first heard Gypsy music recordings in the informal street markets of my native Moscow, when I was barely 7 years old. In 2005, I was asked to arrange several selections of the Taraf’s repertoire for Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble — a few months after that, I heard the Taraf perform live at Carnegie Hall. That year, I also met Inna Barmash, the vocalist of the New York-based Gypsy band Romashka, and now we are married with two beautiful children. In 2006, while assisting Osvaldo Golijov on the film soundtrack to Francis Ford Coppola’s “Youth Without Youth”, we visited the band’s village of Clejani, near Bucharest, where I even played with the band for a few tunes.

“Culai” is cast in five movements that depict a vague “life cycle” story. The first movement, “The Game”, is a jaunty dance, a sort of cat-and-mouse play; the second, “The Muse” juxtaposes a soaring melody over an accompaniment pattern that is in a slightly different pulse. The third “The Song”, was very much inspired by the singing of the Gypsy vocalist Romica Puceanu. The fourth movement, “Love Potion Expired” is an arrangement of a tune I had originally written for my ensemble, Ljova and the Kontraband, a breathless tarantella that perpetually falls onto itself. The last movement, “Funeral Doina”, is imagined as music for a funeral procession, a last tribute to a master violinist and storyteller.

– Ljova

* This commission has been made possible by the Chamber Music America Classical Commissioning Program, with generous funding provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Chamber Music America Endowment Fund.

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To purchase tickets to Béla Fleck and Brooklyn Rider at the Norton Center on November 16, visit the concert page here. 

Categories: A Closer Look, Program Notes

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