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November 18, 2005

Ben Folds creates unstable dynamic with Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Remember the saying that you can have too much of a good thing? It’s true.

Well, at least sometimes.

Flanked by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra last Thursday night (November 10), Ben Folds—the pianist famous in equal parts for his mellifluence and melancholy—performed as crisply as ever.

But with an entire orchestra huddled around him, Folds struggled to keep his overpowering presence in check, often drowning out the orchestra and rendering the professional musicians useless.

During “Zak and Sara,” Folds coiled over his piano in classic Ben Folds fashion. He kicked aside the sitting stool and thrashed down on the keys as he belted out the song’s lyrics in fine form—remember, “Sara spelled without an ‘h,’” and “Zak without a ‘c.’”

As he played “Zak and Sara,” Folds may have well been playing background music for a silent movie. With the conductor flailing and violin bows slicing away, the orchestra might not have even been producing music at all.

Suddenly, a horn burst through Folds’ booming piano, syncopating the “Zak and Sara” refrain and adding a refreshing—but underwhelming—twist to the familiar tune.

Appearing for the first time with an American orchestra, Ben Folds’ concert last Thursday at the Strathmore music center in Bethesda, Maryland, underlined the difficulty of folding classical music into a pop concert. Each song revealed Folds tiptoeing—and sometimes stomping—between his own voice and the fantastic orchestra behind him.

At his best, Folds played delicately and deliberately enough to allow the BSO the chance to add riffs of flair and layers of richness. But often, the conductor was staring over his shoulder at Folds, tapping his feet in time as his baton sat dead, waiting for some sort of cue.

Folds’s softer songs fared better than his louder ones.

Violins and cellos added extra richness to the despair of “Smoke,” giving an exceptionally somber depth to the song about burning away feelings of grief. The delicate xylophone solo sent shivers up this reviewer’s neck.

And during “Fred Jones Part 2,” the tribute to a man fired after a career at a newspaper, a cello cushioned Folds’ voice, when the full orchestra would have created a more dulcet sound.

Folds, who performed with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra in March and releases a DVD of the performance, “Live in Perth,” next month, is on a U.S. tour and comes to Chicago on December 16.

An interesting dynamic during the show was the relationship between Folds and members of the orchestra. As Folds cursed his way through personal anecdotes and banged down on the piano, facial expressions from the orchestra ranged from pained to enthusiastic to blank.

Folds, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, seemed to take special delight in playing in a state-of-the art symphony hall. Completely deafening the orchestra—except for a cow bell-like percussion beat—during “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces,” Folds seemed to especially enjoy his repetitive litany of “kiss my ass, kiss my ass now.”

To hooting and hollering from the crowd, Folds completed the song by picking up his stool, looking questioningly at the tuxedo-clad conductor, and slamming it on the grand piano.