Oregon Symphony & Ben Folds review: The Show Must Go On

Pop pianist shows classical music how to rock audiences.


“While y’all were in your practice rooms practicing eight hours a day,” Ben Folds told the Oregon Symphony on stage at Schnitzer Hall September 20, “the rest of us were out getting laid.”

Best known as a pop pianist and singer-songwriter, Folds sits on the board of the Nashville Symphony. He’s touring a piano concerto he wrote. And he seems to thrive when thrown to the lions . . . . conservatory musicians behind him, a hungry mob in front. He’s a showman on the order of Leonard Bernstein. Eyes rolled when I recently blurted this to a friend who thinks no one will ever match Lenny. He’s right. Folds supersedes him. Only because times have changed and Folds is hipper than thee and me and he takes no prisoners.

Ben Folds rose to the occasion with the Oregon Symphony.

Ben Folds rose to the occasion with the Oregon Symphony.

Folds is obviously not intimidated by the musicians’ pedigrees, displaying his gushing wry affection for them and their prowess, but he also understands that the music itself can still appeal to much bigger than the narrow “classical” audience — if only it’s presented in a way that reaches out to 21st century audiences. As he showed last month in Portland with his piano concerto and his electric connection to listeners, Ben Folds is the perfect evangelist for symphony orchestras, nay, all of classical music.

Like Portland composer Tomas Svoboda, Folds is a percussionist who also plays piano. His piano studies range from lessons with his baby-sitter to honing his technique spending “maybe six months just running scales with a metronome like a freak,” told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2003. “I suppose that did something.”

According to Biography.com, he attended the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music on a percussion scholarship, losing it when he flunked his juries at the end of his first year due to a broken hand. The ignominy of the experience and the  resulting cathartic anger certainly fueled him positively in the same way under similar circumstances it did another classically trained composer who played pop music in Nashville, Christopher Corbell, executive director of both ClassicalRevolutionPDX and MuseForward. Neither of them let the classical music establishment’s inhumanity keep them from eventually coming back to classical music — on their own terms.

Punk Rock for Sissies

Folds opened his concert with the Oregon Symphony with his own pop hits. Let it be known: I do not care for Ben Folds’s pop music. In general, Folds falls into that category of pop that I find whiny, self-indulgent and hermetic, although hundreds of thousands of fans disagree. Logging multi-platinum numbers, Folds clearly has an established loyal fan base. Debuting what he calls his non-power “punk rock for sissies” trio in 1995 with the self-titled Ben Folds Five album, he garnered enough attention to be swooped up in a bidding war by Sony, producing the album Whatever and Ever Amen which charted at 42 in the US. “Brick,” from that album (never released as a single in the US) rose to 26 in the UK and launched Folds past quirky into a mass market where he’s since established a rewarding solo career and relaunched Ben Folds Five after a 12 year hiatus, producing over a dozen albums and counting.

One of the problems with classical concerts that promise pop covers is that the covers are often lame. A week earlier, cellist Maia Beiser likewise came out swinging with covers of pop tunes at Portland’s Time Based Arts Festival. I understand the publicity stunt of pulling in fans to hear something they know and love, but after hearing how Beiser neutered something so primitive and testosterone charged as “Black Dog,” I actually decided against covering Trent Reznor’s “The Becoming” myself. I LOVE Zeppelin and AC/DC, but neither Beiser nor Folds’s openers could deliver that excitement of the first cut on a pop album. I’m starting to think that maybe the covers need to be buried somewhere else within the arc of the concert’s programming.

What Folds Delivers is exciting performances. His pedaling technique “is akin to snowshoeing,” remarked my concert companion. Following in the Jerry Lee Lewis/Little Richard category of athleticism, he’s turned concert pianism, like basketball, from a pristine ballet of limbs and digits into a full contact sport. But the real action started when Folds went “classical.”

Badass Concerto

“Basically your first part is where you throw down everything you’ve got. It’s exhausting! In the second part, you recuperate from the first part so it’s pretty slow. Then you have to wind up the whole silly thing with something fast and fun. Now, Tschaikowsky was so badass he threw down one of the all time greatest themes in the first part of his piano concerto and he never brought it back after the first two minutes!”

I’ve often complained about classical music performers talking from the stage who sound about as somnambulistic as public radio announcers without even their (negligible) charisma. Very few people can get up in front of an audience and speak extemporaneously and entertainingly. Ben Folds’ greatest gift is his ability to do this, to hold us rapt, laughing as he described to his Portland audience last month, for example, what a piano concerto is to a house of pop.

But his light hearted attitude doesn’t mean Folds didn’t take his first orchestral piece seriously. “I was so focused on how the (heck) I was going to play this thing,” he told The Tennessean this year.  “It definitely pushes me. It pushed me to the point where I’ve been daily with four ice packs on me for 20 minutes and then the hot shower in order to get myself (ready). It hurts!”

While I’ve never gotten Folds’s pop, which relies on clever lyrics and meh music, I am a total convert to the third movement of his piano concerto! And I don’t mean relative to his pop. By the time he got to that movement, in a display of time-lapse tripping, he traversed through 200 years of classical music pastiche in his first movement, Brooklyn blah in his second to Ben Folds badass in the third, in a standing warrior stance most of the time, whomping on the bass strings with his forearm, playing stopped strings in the treble, creating general mayhem and destruction, eliciting maniacal giggles from me. I want to play JUST that movement in concert with any orchestra that can do it justice. I will donate my fee, above expenses! If the third movement is his third try at writing something classical (assuming he wrote the movements in order), I can hardly wait for the fourth. The guy’s curve is exponential!

“But my great dream would be that, after I perform it,” he told Gramophone magazine about his concerto, “it gets played by someone else at some point – that would be amazing.”

I squeezed myself through the very crowded main floor and concessions area during intermission expecting to lift juicy tidbits about the first half as I eavesdropped my way around. I am not a fan of intermission. Sadly, no one was talking about the first half. They were all joking or in conversation with others and knee deep at the ATM so that they could get in line to buy something! Grudgingly I admit this intermission was a boon for the concessions. I wonder if the numbers buying treats were greater than at traditional classical concerts.

The other thing I noticed while walking around was that this was the youngest crowd I have ever seen at an Oregon Symphony concert. Average age walking around the main floor during intermission seemed to be mid-late 20s, even though Ben Folds is 48 years old.

Particularly warm and fuzzy were the ushers at the Folds concert; ebullient and especially helpful to listeners who might have been paying their first visit to the hallowed halls of classical music. They seemed truly overcome by the happy youthful energy streaming in from the outside. They were a big part of the magic I felt that night.

Rock This Bitch

“ROCK THIS BITCH!!!!!!!!!!” It’s the second half and a crazed fan bellows his enthusiasm. Ben Folds doubles over with laughter, straightens up and explains “Okay, this isn’t what y’all think.” (What DO we think??). Apparently this heckle has become a staple at every Ben Folds concert, a ritual begun when a live recording was ruined/enhanced by this epithet. What it spawned back then (and continues now) was an on-the-spot improvisation by the quick-thinking Folds.

Turning to size up his musicians, then back to the Portland crowd, he mused aloud “I need weird Portland scales.” What he starts with is a syncopated riff for the violas and cellos, pretzeling himself conducting the musicians used to square classical rhythms through a narrow chute into pop off-beats. In moves I haven’t seen even Leonard Bernstein attempt, Folds conducted them successfully through the sequence after a few false starts, the crowd roaring its support of the mastered phrase. Flutes and oboes were given a modal scale expanded by the contra bassoon who got to be the star. Brass were allowed to squib squeaks, strings pressed out expressive sounds. “All you guys I didn’t give something to play, just make some shit up.” He rehearsed each section, then layered the different pieces together. All the time I was wondering how in the hell the trumpet squibs were going to match against the flute/oboe modal phrases. The choir was added last: “Rock this Bitch in Portland Oregon!” And the crowd went wild. Below is how Folds Rocked this Bitch with the Rochester Symphony; you’ll get an idea of his simultaneous multi-tracking improv on the fly in addition to his artless charisma:

That same energy, charm and ability to conduct an on-the-spot improv successfully he later focused on us the audience: dividing the house in half, dividing each half into thirds (low, middle, high). Lows sang an A to C interval. Middles sang a C to E interval and Highs sang an E to G interval. An a minor triad to a C Major triad. And then Folds went to town, counterpointing us in tricky house wars, flashing his hands into fists or pointing his finger up to indicate either STOP NOW! or Start on the higher of your two pitches. Closely behind his ability to talk with an audience is his ability to conduct.

The applause and screaming at the end of the show was so loud it hurt my ears. This has never happened to me in the Schnitz. Folds, ever the wisecracker, came out for the encore, flippantly announced that this was an unforeseen surprise and thank goodness they had another piece they could spontaneously perform – leaving us drifting away with “I’m not tired, I’m not tired . . . .” from his song “Narcolepsy.”

“There are two kinds of towns. Those with symphony orchestras and those without, and the ones without are crap!” Audience ROARS!!!!! This is probably the first symphony concert a lot of them have attended. Wheeling to face the Oregon Symphony players, Ben Folds points to the musicians, twisting back to face the audience while still pointing at the players, and yells “WE NEED THEM MORE THAN THEY NEED US!!!”

By now I’m wondering how secure the Schnitz’s seismic reinforcement is; the floor’s shaking. And still he won’t stop: “Tonight was nothing. I thank the orchestra for putting up with pop music — not that I think my music isn’t good, IT IS! But if you REALLY want to hear something, come back and hear this orchestra play real stuff by Prokofiev, Ravel, Beethoven. THAT’S the badass shit!!”

We need Ben Folds more than he needs us!

Portland pianist and teacher Maria Choban is OAW’s Oregon ArtsBitch.

2 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    I 100% agree with Ben Fold’s final 2 sentences quoted above.

  2. Jack Gabel says:

    RE: “WE NEED THEM MORE THAN THEY NEED US!!!” Correct – one often hears: “American’s don’t need art.” – wrong! Americans need art more than ever. Let’s all do what we can to give them the best — better than what they think they can handle.

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