Classical Banjo

You scan the playlist — Schumann, Handel, Bach, and friends — and you wonder how this is possible. But no: John Bullard is serious, and although he plays the banjo, he does not view that as an impediment to his music-making. The instrument has essentially nothing “classical” in its repertoire, to be sure, but musicians in such a quandary can always turn to transcriptions. I suspect Bullard was formerly an oboist, because most of his pieces were originally penned for that instrument. He infuses Schumann’s Three Romances (Op. 94) with harp-like sonority as Robert Kortgaard accompanies on a piano that has been damped to the point of pianissimo, which keeps it from swamping the solo line. A small vocal ensemble, singing the chorale melody in Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” is similarly exiled to faraway climes — the next room, perhaps? — in Bullard’s adept, banjo-to-the-fore rendition. Alessandro Marcello’s famous Oboe Concerto doesn’t seem so wacky on banjo when you remember that Marcello’s fellow Venetian Antonio Vivaldi wrote concertos for the mandolin, which inhabits a similar sound world. Numerous able musician friends assist, including two lute players; this broadens the pleasant plucked-string atmosphere. Transcriptions of six movements from Grieg’s Lyric Pieces are strange indeed. But apart from that, Bullard makes a case for using the five-string banjo to play classics rather than bluegrass, which at least earns him points for pluckiness.

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