Béla Fleck didn’t cut loose at Sixth & I with Brooklyn Rider, but the crowd loved it anyway


Bela Fleck (Courtesy of Washington Performing Arts Society)
November 24, 2013

The sold-out crowd gave a boisterous standing ovation to the first of two performances Saturday night by Béla Fleck and Brooklyn Rider. So if patrons felt they got their money’s worth, this less-enthralled minority view shouldn’t matter much. But the musical substance, let alone permanence, of what we heard (separate from the performers) was disappointingly thin.

Banjo master Béla Anton Leos Fleck was probably destined for music from the cradle (his official bio notes that he was named after Béla Bartók, Antonín Dvorák and Leos Janácek). A true musical polymath, he has garnered Grammy nominations in nine categories, managing to weave his humble instrument convincingly into every type of nonclassical musical fabric. And he freely takes from classical sources in his compositions and arrangements. Brooklyn Rider is a charismatic string quartet that also delights in mash-ups of every description. The show was presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. A second performance was added in the face of ferocious ticket demand, and it too sold out almost immediately.

But surely some of Fleck’s fans were a little perplexed by what they got. The loose, all-embracing, world-music grooves from the dozen or so Béla Fleck and the Flecktones albums was heard only sporadically during a six-number set of fixed, notated chamber music that too often reached for meaning and profundity with little to support it. Within the stricter format, Fleck never cut loose with the blistering, dizzying playing that has brought him worldwide success; he spent the bulk of the set just playing accompanying licks.

Yes, it was “genre bending,” but so what? Fleck’s name will always pack houses, but I cannot imagine these pedestrian pieces succeeding on their own once he stops playing them. The two contributions by Brooklyn Rider — a Middle-Eastern-tinged composition by Colin Jacobsen and an arrangement of a gentle bossa nova song — were both superior to Fleck’s efforts, in the string writing as well as the form and pacing.

Battey is a freelance writer.

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