Sunday, March 02, 2008

Dartmouth's Happiest Audience Ever

What a breathless week it’s been. I attended a Barbara Ehrenreich lecture on Monday, gave a sermon on Thursday, spent time dealing with local church politics, had way too much homework, and last night, went to a Bela Fleck/Chick Corea concert. Guess which one was the most fun?

Fleck is probably just about the greatest active banjo player out there, and Corea is one of the more impressive pianists. The Hop program notes said he started the 1970s fusion movement. These guys are both musical geniuses, virtuosos in the truest sense of the word, and Dartmouth knew it – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more appreciative audience. The show has been sold out since October (maybe even September?). The duo received two instant standing ovations, one for the concert and one for the encore. This was the first time I’d ever seen people standing outside the Dartmouth box office begging for tickets. A friend tells me he's seen that on two other occasions since 2000 - YoYo Ma and another Fleck concert. My friend in the box office tells me it’s been this way for weeks. The buzz in the line going into the theater was impressive, and the lobby chatter I overheard during intermission was thrilled. I myself have been looking forward to this concert for months, but this level of anticipation was still amazing.

The performers were a lot of fun, Corea in particular. He wore an untucked, open flannel shirt and a pair of spotted tennis shoes. The two played off one another and joked around as buddies quite a bit, although Fleck is quick to say Corea is his hero. I’ve been a big Fleck fan since high school, but Corea certainly won me over tonight. There’s not much I can say about the music itself – the pieces were generally slower, with lots of minor keys. It is impressive how well the banjo and piano go together, sometimes blending as one. It’s not a combination I would have anticipated, but Corea and Fleck knew how to turn the instruments into soul mates. During the stirring lullaby “Prelude et Berceuse” from French composer Henri Dutilleux, the two instruments seemed to have almost the same timbre in their upper registers, it was startling. Yet it’s also possible – something I did not know – for the banjo to become a Spanish guitar! What a versatile little box it is. My favorite pieces were the prelude and three pieces from the duo’s album “The Enchanted”: “Spectacle,” “Mountain,” and “Menagerie.” The encore was especially thrilling – first they played a medley that began with a variation on “Big Country,” my absolute favorite song in the whole wide world (a very popular tune in Dartmouth land), and then moved to some rousing bluegrass. The show lasted over two hours, but I’m sure the audience wouldn’t have minded a third tune tacked on to that encore. JamBase’s Matthew Jaworski wrote a pretty accurate review of an earlier date on the tour:

They began with Corea's "Senorita," an exotic piece that was, by turns, seductive, funky, and scorching. The song exemplified many of the characteristics that would resound during both sets, such as Corea's haunting yet playful lines, Fleck's searing runs up and down the banjo, and both musicians' superlative ability to work with one another.

The first set was full of memorable moments, but the second song, "Menagerie," was the high point. Expanding upon the album version, Corea began by playing a melancholy solo introduction. With one hand playing the keys, he reached into the top of the piano to pluck, tap and dampen the strings. Fleck quietly crept in and soon both musicians were locked-in, playing the song's main theme in unison. Then, while one would supply the lively rhythmic foundation, the other would vamp on the melody. The song progressively increased in ferocity, with both men blasting out a flurry of interlocking notes that stunned the audience. The song abruptly ended and the crowd roared with appreciation. [Note: The photo is also from JamBase.]

The joint tour is almost over – just one more concert to go – and I feel blessed to have been able to grab my piece of the magic. These two men are musical geniuses, and at the very least innovators, and they make for a very important pairing!

This was about the highest quality clip on YouTube, though not a song I recognize:

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