Article about Ben and tonight's concert in the Tennessean

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Article about Ben and tonight's concert in the Tennessean
« on: September 07, 2008, 11:07:26 AM »

Ben Folds gets (semi) serious in concert at Schermerhorn


If you've heard songs such as the epic, operatic "Narcolepsy" or intricate jazz waltz "Selfless, Cold and Composed," you'd probably agree that Nashville pop pianist/singer Ben Folds is an inspired choice to collaborate with the Nashville Symphony for its 2008-09 opening weekend.

But Folds admits that the concept of performing with a symphony, which he'll do at tonight's sold-out concert at Schermerhorn Symphony Center, was one he had to warm up to.

"I rejected the idea for some time," Folds says. "I had seen some really bad results with rock bands basically sounding their worst and covering up the orchestra. The orchestra just served as a big kind of wash, with open mikes all over the stage that made the drums sound bad.

"I just didn't really see the point of an orchestra dodging a rock band, basically holding whole notes. To see 90 people just going (sings one long note), I thought, 'Well, I'm not digging that too much.' But what compelled me to do it was the idea that the orchestra would be the rock band. That's the way we've arranged."

Since first performing with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra in 2005, Folds has made rock bands out of the Boston Pops, the Sydney Symphony and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, among numerous others. The Schermerhorn concert is one of four symphony performances he'll give this fall. He's also releasing a new album, Way To Normal,later this month.

Though many of Folds' complex, tender tunes have struck inspired synergy with orchestras, there's also a playful, unpredictable and sometimes profane side to his performance style that threatens to clash with the hallowed aura of a concert hall. At non-orchestral gigs in recent years, Folds has made up songs based on drunken shouts from the audience, hired improv troupes to make shocking scenes in the crowd and led his trio through countless ironic renditions of a gangsta rap song with an unprintable title. He tries to be less provocative at symphony shows, he says, but can't resist spur-of-the-moment urges.

"On two occasions, I went out on a limb and had the entire orchestra improvise. That was interesting," he says. "I was telling them what to play on the spot, and they weren't aware that it was going to happen, because I wasn't aware that it was going to happen until that moment.

"One time, at the Sydney Opera House with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Steve Irwin had just passed away, and he was a national hero of sorts. Someone said, 'Rock this (expletive) for Steve Irwin.' And of course, after they said that there were a lot of groans and sighs in the audience, because they didn't think it was very respectful.

"But I said, 'Well, maybe that's cool. Maybe we can do something for the man.' I said, 'Give me two seconds,' and I sat there at the piano and wrote the lyrics, and then I started to dictate parts to the orchestra. Within five minutes, we had a piece going and the crowd was singing along."

Going out on a limb seems especially bold when you learn that Folds typically rehearses only once with each orchestra — twice if you're "really lucky," he says. His biggest challenge is anticipating how his rock-reared playing style will mesh with an orchestra's more traditional approach.

"I would imagine that Nashville has a fairly groovy orchestra," he says, "because these are people that play in the studio a lot and have to be able to play in literal time, in literal rock 'n' roll click-track time, which isn't necessarily right. A lot of orchestras, especially the more provincial, out-of-the way orchestras, are a little more old-fashioned, and their time tends to be more flexible."

Along with the Symphony, Folds has left much of Nashville to his imagination. Since moving back here earlier in the decade, he's kept a noticeably low profile. Along with his one-off performance at Exit/In last year, the Schermerhorn concert is a rare live reminder of Folds' presence in Music City.

When in town, Folds says he tends to "spend time in the darkroom printing photographs and work. I've just never been a go-out kind of person. (Nashville's) a good town to do that in.

"People I know, my friends that go out all the time, they seem much happier about it than people in other towns I've lived in that go out all the time. I detect that this is a great place to go out and hang if you want to.

"But I wouldn't know any more about that than I would the bowling scene, or which is the best place to get ribs. There's a Starbucks near my studio, and I'm probably seen there more than anywhere, just because I walk out the door, walk there, grab a coffee and go back to the studio."