Ben Folds goes orchestral in Bethesda
The Georgetown Voice
November 17, 2005
by Dave Stroup
When the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra took stage at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda last Thursday, they were greeted with an audience clad in t-shirts and jeans rather than the usual black ties. Then again, this was not a typical show for the BSO: they were about to play backup for pop singer-songwriter Ben Folds in the first of the Orchestra’s “Pop Rocks” series at the Strathmore, an awkward but crowd-pleasing pairing.
The atmosphere was a bit stiff, as a very casual Ben Folds plopped himself down at the gigantic concert grand piano in front of the white-haired, tuxedo-sporting conductor. Folds himself acknowledged the unusual formality of the event, joking that it had to be formal to keep so many musicians under control.
Folds began his set with “Zak and Sara,” off his first solo album, Rockin’ the Suburbs. Hearing the full strings section accompany Folds’ vocals and piano was breathtaking. The fantastic acoustics of the Music Center drew a collective gasp from the audience when the horns and percussion came in.
The orchestra enhanced many of Folds’ songs; “Philosophy” and “Annie Waits” in particular worked well with the horns and strings. Other songs, though, found the orchestra sitting out as he played piano solo. The colorful, uncensored lyrics of “All U Can Eat” left a horrified look on the face of the conductor and many of the Strathmore ushers.
The setlist for the show was typical of a Ben Folds concert, drawing from his solo work and both Ben Folds Five albums. While most of the songs incorporated the orchestra, the show was not that much different from a non-symphonic one. Folds even directed audience sing-alongs for “Army” and “Not the Same.”
The orchestra seemed like a perfectly natural extension of what could have been called the Ben Folds Seventy. The setting was a bit awkward and unusual at first, but eventually the conductor and orchestra lightened up and looked like they were enjoying themselves as much as Folds and the audience were.
Folds began his orchestral project in March, recording with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra in Perth, Australia. A live DVD of the show will be released Dec. 6. His performance with the BSO is his first show with an American orchestra.
The aim of Folds and the BSO, as well as other orchestras around the world, is to attract a newer, younger audience to the shrinking world of classical and chamber music. The BSO will be hosting Elvis Costello in April, which will feature his full-length orchestral work Il Sogno as well as his rock songs.
While this recent series opener started off on unsteady footing, Folds and the Orchestra both showed that there’s room in the concert hall for the Whatever and Ever Amen crowd.