BWW Interview: Folds Ready to Rock With the CSO

Photo: Steve DeWeese

When he was starting out as the front man for the rock trio The Ben Folds Five, Ben Folds admits he never pictured the day when he would perform his concert staple "Rock This B*tch" with a symphony behind him.

Yet chances are the eclectic singer/songwriter will be asked to do just that when he performs with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra on April 9 at the Ohio Theatre (39 E. State Street in downtown Columbus). The song, an impromptu piece that Folds creates whenever a fan shouts out "rock this b*tch!" during his shows, presents a unique challenge when performing with a symphony.

"I orchestrate them on the spot as opposed to carrying sheet music around for it," Folds says with a laugh in a telephone interview from New York City. "When I originally got into playing pop concerts with orchestras, it was really sort of a challenge of how to do that (song) without insulting the intelligence of the orchestra. I actually turned down the notion of playing that song a couple of times.

"Once I figured out I could make the orchestra the rock band and not bring a rock band (along with me), we started getting somewhere. The first couple times we did it, I gave really vague directions. As the years have gone on, I have sort of taken the lead to dictating to every section."

The show will be Folds' third concert with the CSO since 2009 and over that time the song has evolved into the full blown version. In the 2009 concert at Veterans Memorial, he wanted until the orchestra was gone to play it. Then in a 2014 Columbus Bicentennial Park concert, he incorporated the CSO, dictating notes to each section.

The impromptu sessions gives the audience how Folds' mind works musically.

"You see the whole thing develop there on stage," Folds says. "I don't have anything prepared. It won't work well for me if I planned any of it."

Orchestras like the CSO have found an unconventional ally in Folds, who sits on the board of directors for the Nashville Symphony.

Many performers from hard rock bands KISS and Metallica to rappers Jay Z and Sir Mix-A-Lot have all shared the stage with symphonies but orchestral music holds a special place for Folds. The experience of playing in a youth orchestra when Folds was nine years old helped foster his love for music. His latest album "So There" features three piano concertos.

"My experience with orchestra came before my experience of playing in a rock band," Folds says. "I was lucky to live somewhere that had access to a youth orchestra. I started thinking that I could be in a rock band when I was 18 or 19 but by then I had a good 10 years of being in an orchestra before I did that."

Folds' partnership with the orchestras couldn't have come at a better time.

In the middle of the 20th century, the United States accounted for nearly half of the world's orchestras, according to writer Norman Lebrecht. However in the past decade, a disturbing trend has hit the nation's orchestras. In 2013, New Republic reported Honolulu, Syracuse, and Albuquerque symphonies had all closed their doors, the Philadelphia Orchestra filed for Chapter 11 protection and even Folds' beloved Nashville Symphony came within days of having its concert hall foreclosed.

"I think we have to push back against it or actually push forward is a better way of looking at it," Folds says. "The orchestra has been through these cycles before.

"It varies from city to city to how they are dealing with the subscription audience aging out and dealing with a new generation which really hasn't been exposed to the symphony before. How do they get those people to come? We have to remind people just how amazing the orchestra is."

In 2014, Folds joked with the Columbus Bicentennial Park crowd that performing with the CSO was the equivalent of a "Wet T-Shirt Contest Night" aimed at creating a new generation of orchestra patrons.

As he gears up for another round of shows with orchestras, Folds sounds a little more hopeful.

"If people come to see my shows with the orchestra, hopefully they'll come back and see Mahler or see something that isn't the theme to STAR WARS," Folds says. "If they come back shortly after seeing a show like mine, they'd be able to see that thread between it all.

"I've been putting my money where my mouth is for the last 10 years. I don't make as much money by going out and playing these things but I'll continue to do them and keep investing in these scores because I love doing it and I like to think I'm helping a little bit. It helps me quite a bit (as a musician)."

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From This Author Paul Batterson

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