Through the years, Ben Folds has proved that his brain is hardwired for the symphonic form. Most people probably recognize him from his turn as the front man and namesake of Ben Folds Five, a band that rose to fame in the mid-'90s. (Fun Fact: Despite their name’s suggestion, they were only a trio.) This Thursday (March 16) at 7:30 p.m., Folds will join the orchestra for a one-night-only romp through his "Concerto for Piano and Orchestra."
The symphony will play the overture before Folds dives into his acclaimed three-movement concerto, which draws on recognizable classical influences such as Ravel and Gershwin. He’ll also highlight selections from his latest album So There, which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Classical and Classical Crossover charts, as well as a handful of his alternative-pop hits.
Lesley Sabol, the symphony’s director of popular programming, says Folds’ appearance is part of her overall plan to showcase the versatility and relevance of classical music.
“In my programming, what I try to do is utilize the orchestra in as many different genres as possible and showcase that they can do everything at a high level, and Ben is part of that strategy,” she says.
It’s a smart strategy. Folds will no doubt be a good addition to not only entertain the masses but also to bring a special attention to how playful music can be as well as how the symphony serves its part.
“It’s very exciting to watch! One of my most favorite things he does is improvising,” says Sabol. In the concert’s second half, she adds, he’ll play a theme and then he’ll have the orchestra play variations of that theme on the spot. “He’ll go from section to section to play it, and it’s super cool to see him be able to do it so quickly. It’s a great musician’s brain there.”
Even though they were small, Ben Folds Five were mighty. The group's 1997 album Whatever and Ever Amen went platinum. They also earned accolades from the Recording Industry of Japan and the Australian Recording Industry Association.
They recorded a few more records – none ever reaching the acclaim of Whatever - before Folds struck out on his own as a soloist. Afterward, he found success by going back to his roots as a pianist, singer and, most notably, a commentator. He spent five seasons as a judge on the popular NBC series The Sing Off, which catapulted the art of a cappella — singing without instrumental accompaniment — into the national spotlight, and helped launch the careers of numerous a cappella groups.
Further, Folds collaborated on records with artists like Sara Bareilles, Regina Spektor, Weird Al Yankovic and William Shatner. He has also contributed original songs to the soundtracks of the animated films Over the Hedge and Hoodwinked!
All of that work, though, pales in comparison to Folds' work with symphonies, which has stretched from the U.S. all the way to Sydney, Australia. An advocate for music education and music therapy as a member of Artist Committee of the Americans for the Arts, he also serves on the board of directors of the Nashville Symphony. (Folds previously appeared with the Houston Symphony in June 2014.)
For an idea of how involved Folds get with his music, see this video of him performing a section of the previously mentioned concerto at the Kennedy Center.
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His presence onstage is mesmerizing. While he plays only one instrument during this concert, he exploits every part of it to rapture the audience's attention and show his ability to blend classical and jazz into a modern, interesting format.
With an almost circadian rhythm, he floats in and out of syncopation, using the nod of his head and tapping of his foot as a metronome to tether himself to the beat. With razor-sharp precision, his fingers move faster than a sprinter's feet. His deliberate use of fortes and pianos to punctuate the music deliver a nuanced and seasoned familiarity of dynamics. His reaching into the guts of the piano to imitate the sounds of a banging gong or the pizzicato chime of a harpsichord demonstrate his downright masterful understanding of the piano and of music. His tossing of his tie over his shoulder highlights his whimsical humor and relatability, all backed by the artistic talent he exudes in front of the audience.
For any classical-music aficionado or even for any fair-weather music listener, this concert should be pure bliss.
Ben Folds and the Houston Symphony's concert takes place 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 16 at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana. Tickets range from $29 to $99. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit houstonsymphony.org or call 713-224-7575.