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Concert Reviews:
Ben Folds delivers an orchestra "experience" with the DSO

Digital First Media, @GraffonMusic

Posted: Thursday, October 16, 2014

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DETROIT -- It's fairly unlikely that Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky has been referred to as "badass" from the venerable stage of Detroit's Orchestra Hall -- very often, if ever.

But that was Ben Folds' assessment of the Russian composer on Wednesday night, Oct. 15, as he joined the Detroit Symphony Orchestra for the Ben Folds Orchestral Experience (underwritten by Acura/Panasonic), the symphonic component of the ambitious and eclectic career the pop singer, songwriter, pianist and "The Sing-Off" judge has carved for himself since emerging as an indie rock favorite in nearly 20 years ago. Given the advanced craft of Folds' music in general, the association certainly made sense, and during the two-hour-plus show he managed to bridge any perceived gaps between stilted classicism and kitschy pop showmanship, proving they could co-exist and even get along pretty well together.

Folds also did his part in making sure his fans -- a collegiate-looking young adult group that comprised the bulk of Wednesday's audience -- understood that being able to see a symphony orchestra "on a regular basis" is a privilege. "It's the highest symbol of civilization we have in art," Folds said, encouraging fans to come back for other DSO programs. "It's not that different than what we're doing tonight -- except it's better," Folds quipped.

The self-deprecation was in character -- but, of course, incorrect. Folds' show was as musically impressive as it was entertaining as he ran through versions of favorites such as "Jesusland," "Landed," "Steven's Last Night in Town, "Zak and Sara" and "One Angry Dwarf..." that were given more body and majesty by conductor Steven Jarvi and the DSO's arrangements as well as an eight-voice choir. And Folds flashed his own classical chops with the careening third movement from his "Concerto For Piano and Orchestra" that he's been recording in New York.

Folds -- who performed a private show for the Cranbrook Academy's upper school on Tuesday, Oct. 14, in Bloomfield Hills -- played conductor himself during "Not the Same," teaching the audience a three-tier harmony and then leading it through a series of rapid-fire variations. But the night's highlight for many was "Rock This Bitch," a Folds concert staple in which, at crowd's behest, he "invents" a song on the spot -- in this case crafting a piece for the orchestra and choir that took much longer to create than it did to play, although the exchange was fascinating to watch.

And those who wanted straight-up Ben Folds got that, too, during a spirited two-song encore featuring solo performances -- after the orchestra left the stage per contracted union rules -- of "Annie Waits" and "Army," with a fully exuberant and interactive singalong for the latter. It was clearly a knowledgeable group of Folds fans that stuck around 'til the last note, but the left Orchestra Hall knowing a little more about the artist they so clearly adore.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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