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Spartanburg Philharmonic Presents Discovering the Banjo with Béla Fleck and Kristen Scott Benson

January 07, 2020 | Press Releases


Contact: Courtney Oliver 
Spartanburg Philharmonic 

Spartanburg, SC (January 6, 2020) - In line with its core mission, the Spartanburg Philharmonic has developed a unique program designed to educate, enrich, and inspire like never before. Throughout January, the Philharmonic will partner with three internally renown banjo players to present a multi-week series of teaching residencies, film screenings, and educational outreach programs titled Discovering the Banjo. As a grand finale, the Philharmonic will present a special two-night performance event featuring the banjo.

Throughout the program, Discovering the Banjo will feature three world-class banjo artists. 16- time GRAMMY award-winning banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck will entrance both the Bluegrass Spartanburg and the Philharmonic audiences with his masterful and passionate performances. For the first concert on January 31, Fleck will be joined by his wife, GRAMMY Award-winning banjo musician Abigail Washburn, incredibly skilled banjoist and singer herself.

The following night on February 1, Béla Fleck will perform with the Spartanburg Philharmonic at Twichell Auditorium at the Zimmerli Performance Center. Titled Americana Masters, the performance features works by American composers, including several living composers -- a unique departure from the typical masterworks concert. The program will open with “Golden State Romp” from the Lincoln Highway Suite by Spartanburg composer Nolan Stolz, followed by Aaron Copland’s Pulitzer-Prize winning Appalachian Spring. Béla Fleck will join the Philharmonic in performing his Juno Concerto for banjo and orchestra to close the concert.

Joining Discovering the Banjo education team is 4-time Bluegrass Music Association’s Banjo Player of the Year Kristin Scott Benson of The Grascals. The Grascals, along with Rhonda Vincent, and Balsam Range are just some of the performers that the Spartanburg Philharmonic has brought to the stage since it began presenting the Bluegrass Spartanburg concert series in 2017. Now in its third season, Bluegrass Spartanburg has attracted over 3,100 audience members, and through the Discovering the Banjo performances, now has the opportunity to attract even more.

Benson, also a member of the Bluegrass Spartanburg Committee, recalls how the project started; “Bluegrass Spartanburg made the ambitious decision to bring in Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn for a concert at the Chapman Cultural Center. Since Béla has written and performed classical pieces, it led to the idea of having him also collaborate with Stefan and the Philharmonic.” But the committee, says Benson, saw the opportunity for something more, “Since we suddenly had a banjo-centric weekend with these two concerts, we started brainstorming about ways to make it a community-wide initiative.”

Discovering the Banjo represents a new opportunity for both organizations and a program that Kathryn Boucher, Executive Director of the Spartanburg Philharmonic, has enjoyed creating. “This project represents an exciting crossing of genres for the Spartanburg Philharmonic, which has presented classical masterworks, chamber music, and new works for 90 years,” says Boucher. “This is the orchestra’s first invitation for a Bluegrass Spartanburg artist to perform with the full orchestra and will be an exceptional concert experience for both our Bluegrass and Philharmonic audiences, as well as a unique educational opportunity for all who love music.”

Through a partnership with the Cleveland Academy of Leadership, Discovering the Banjo will also introduce many Spartanburg to the instrument and its rich cultural history. Beginning January 27, banjoist Kristin Scott Benson will serve as the artist-in-residence for a week-long residency at Cleveland Academy, and in collaboration with the academy’s teachers, will focus on developing students’ creative capacities including imagination, critical thinking, and persistence. To finish the week, students will convene in their auditorium for a banjo performance.

The project will also partner with the Tryon Fine Arts Center and their PacJAM program, which provides an opportunity for area youth to experience community through the joy of participating in traditional music. PacJAM students and teachers are part of a multi-state regional effort to preserve the music of the Appalachian cultural heritage through music education. The Discovering the Banjo projected invited PacJAM students to join an essay contest and to attend a mini-masterclass with Kristen Scott Benson.

For the essay contest, students watched “Throw Down Your Heart,” a feature-length documentary that details Béla Fleck’s journey through Africa to trace the banjo’s origins. Intended to help American audiences understand that even though mainstream media portrays the banjo as an instrument that “rednecks” or “hillbillies” use, it actually has a rich history in the music of many different cultures, including the Caribbean and African music, where the instrument originated. PacJam’s students were then asked to write a short essay describing how the film changed their impression of the banjo. The contest winner will be announced the Spring issue of the Philharmonic’s program magazine HearHere and recognized from the stage during one of the final Discovering the Banjo performances.

The Spartanburg Philharmonic will also partner with the Spartanburg County Public Library and the Carolina Music Museum in Greenville County (SC) to present free public screenings of Fleck’s film “Throw Down Your Heart.” Both screenings will be moderated by local scholars and may include banjo demonstrations by local musicians.

As a fitting end to an incredible month of discovery, the final two concerts give the Spartanburg community the opportunity to hear the banjo played with uncompromised skill and beauty by an incomparable talent. For the first concert with Bluegrass Spartanburg, Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn together perform the most breathtaking music for banjo concert-goers will ever experience. For the second, Americana Masters, Fleck’s Juno Concerto is an incredible piece that inspires with its swooping strings and contemplative banjo melody, masterfully played by Béla Fleck himself.

The Bluegrass Spartanburg concert is currently sold-out; however, patrons should contact the Philharmonic to be added to a waiting list. Tickets to Americana Masters are going fast with prices starting at $25. Tickets can be purchased online at, by telephone at 864 542-2787, or in person at the Twichell Box Office, located outside Wilson Hall at Converse College. Teachers and youth under 22 years of age will receive 50% off the price of a single ticket off for all Classics concerts. Classical Conversations continues with Dr. Chris Vaneman, Director of the Petrie School of Music, and Maestro Stefan Sanders at 6 pm in the concert hall.

The Spartanburg Philharmonic invites everyone to join us as we Discover the Banjo this January.

###About Spartanburg Philharmonic

The Spartanburg Philharmonic’s mission is to enrich, inspire and educate through live performances of high-quality music. Founded in 1928, the Spartanburg Philharmonic is comprised of professional musicians from diverse backgrounds who form an ensemble capable of performing a variety of musical styles and repertoire.

###About Bluegrass Spartanburg

Bluegrass Spartanburg, an entity of Spartanburg Philharmonic, was established in 2015 by a small group of bluegrass fans living in our town. Their goal was to bring nationally recognized and award-winning bluegrass entertainment to our community. Today, Bluegrass Spartanburg welcomes a variety of bluegrass bands that span from traditional to contemporary, bringing their down-home roots mixed with rock-infused jams for all to enjoy.

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