Bullard Goes To Bat For Classical Banjo

By Madison Warren

Album cover designed by Travis Ladue with photo by Michael Wilson

With its roots in folk, bluegrass, and early African-American music, the banjo may not appear to have a place in the classical world. But John Bullard’s collaboration with other musicians on his recording Classical Banjo: The Perfect Southern Art reveals the bright, sweet-sounding instrument’s ability to fit snugly into the music of Marcello, Handel, Bach, Telemann, and Grieg. The album also reveals the perils of arranging for such a distinct sound, most notably in Bullard’s attempt to reinvent Schumann’s Three Romances for the banjo. Though not effective all the way through, the disc has enough charm and deeply expressive moments to make a convincing case for the instrument’s versatility.

Opening with Schumann pieces may not make the best first impression. The dark and sustained piano sound begs for the singing of a wind instrument rather than the percussive qualities of the banjo. The last movement works best, the minor key and unison line softening the instrument’s twang. The banjo sticks out further down the list of tracks as well. The performance of Bach’s chorale, Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring, verges precariously on the cheesy, with odd, folksy arpeggios plucked from Bullard’s strings.

At its most expressive, the banjo resembles a classical guitar with a Southern accent. The clear articulations of the metal strings in front of the tight head sound charming and classy in the context of a Baroque chamber ensemble. In Marcello’s Concerto in D Minor, Bullard shows off even, controlled ornamentation with ease in the first movement, and demonstrates his instrument’s generous capacity for lyricism in the second. His slight rubato at the ends of simple phrases is extremely effective over the placid, static accompaniment. When the banjo drops out and the cello and soft-spoken archlute are given room to blossom, the texture grows darker, and depth and power come to the fore.

The Handel and Telemann are both impeccably clean, as their styles demand. The balance between solo voices in Handel’s Trio Sonata in G minor is pristine. In Telemann’s Partita No. 5 in E minor, Bullard tackles with ease some more complicated phrases and fugal lines against the masterful continuo playing.

Though Grieg’s Lyric Pieces are far from Baroque music, the blend is considerably better than in Schumann, with banjo, violin, viola, and cello playing music originally written for solo piano. During “In My Native Country,” the sustained tones of the strings complement Bullard’s light plucking, as the melodic line passes through the trio in different combinations. The chromaticism in “Evening in the Mountains” shows a darker side of the banjo — its metallic timbre over a haunting minor line in the low strings sounds sinister.

The album closes with a pastoral tune, “Halling.” It starts with sustained open fifths in the strings followed by a fiddle-like line in the banjo that brings the instrument much closer to home. Although back in the land of folk tunes, Bullard and those who accompany him make sure that the banjo’s modern place in the classical world won’t soon be forgotten.


Photo by Laurel Wolfe

Madison Warren is in her third year at Oberlin Conservatory where she is pursing a degree in horn performance under Roland Pandolfi. When she’s not practicing or rehearsing she enjoys cutting vegetables, talking to her plants, and lying face down in the grass on a sunny day.


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