IF YOU GO
What: Chattanooga Symphony & Opera Masterworks concert with Bela Fleck.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday and May 4.
Where: Tivoli Theatre, 709 Broad St.
Venue website: www.chattanoogasymphony.org.
To some, the banjo is a five-stringed instrumental punchline with little to no relevance or function outside the confines of backwoods picking circles. For more than 30 years, Bela Fleck's career has stood as one of the greatest counter arguments to that opinion.
From nearly a decade with the progressive bluegrass group New Grass Revival and more than twice that with jazz fusion supergroup The Flecktones, Fleck has taken the banjo far beyond its conventional limits.
When he picked up the instrument at age 15, however, Fleck said he never stopped to consider what it shouldn't do in his single-minded pursuit to make it do what he wanted it to.
"I always loved the banjo's sound the most," he wrote, in an emailed response. "Bluegrass was great, but so was jazz, rock and classical, so I tried to learn everything pretty early.
"I always figured that there was a whole lot that would really sound great on the banjo that hadn't been tried, and I found it addictive to try."
Fleck's participation in a wide range of projects has earned him a dozen Grammys, many through collaborations with artists such as Asleep at the Wheel and Edgar Meyer.
In his 2001 album, "Perpetual Motion," Fleck and Meyer tackled a project adapting the banjo to the framework of classical music. The album won a pair of Grammys.
Fleck's most recent foray into the classical genre was to compose his Concerto for Banjo, which he debuted Sept. 22 with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.
Thursday, Fleck will perform the concerto with the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera during the first of two shows that will close out this year's Masterworks concert series. The event will also feature performances of "Les Preludes" by Franz Liszt and "Dance Suites" by Bela Bartok, for whom Fleck was named.
When composing the concerto, Fleck said the banjo's distinctive voice helped him to craft a work that would highlight the instrument without relying on gimmicks.
"The best part is that it has a sound that no other instrument in the orchestra has, so I can compose for it and know that it will stand out," he said. "Aside from that, it's about finding music that fits the range and the strengths that the banjo has.
"After recording 'Perpetual Motion,' which has violin, piano and cello music transcribed for banjo, I really want to write music that capitalizes on what the banjo can do that no other instrument can."
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...