BWW Reviews: An Odd Pairing Makes for a Unique Night for Ben Folds and the Columbus Symphony Orchestra

At first glance, Ben Folds and Albert-George Schram would appear to have nothing in common. Schram, a white-haired maestro with a greying mustache and a soft smile, is the Resident Staff Conductor of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. Folds, the bespectacled pop star/pianist with an acerbic sense of humor, makes a living with acidic love songs and often off-color storytelling.

Yet for two and a half hours, the two played off each other to deliver a brilliant, classically infused pop concert for a sold-out crowd of over 5,000 at Columbus Bicentennial Park. Folds, who last played with the CSO in 2009 at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, appears to have a great respect for the conductor, the symphony and for orchestras in general.

"We need more symphony orchestras," says Folds, who serves as a member of the Board of Directors for the Nashville Symphony. "There's no way around it. If you go to a town that doesn't have an orchestra or has a bad orchestra, that's a pretty crappy place to be.We need the orchestra more than the orchestra needs us.

"These guys are all excellent players. They've spent all of their lives becoming excellent. You need to make sure you come back and see them do the great stuff."

The Ben Folds Orchestral Experience tour served a dual purpose. The CSO introduced the aging symphony-going crowd to one of the more inventive singer/songwriters out there. Folds drew some of the younger members of his audience to the power of orchestrated score.

Folds is one of a few artists who will be performing with the CSO this summer. Columbus' "Picnic with the Pops" series will present The Legends of Classic Rock with former Kansas front man John Elefante performing a bevy of hits, on June 28. The O'Jays play with the CSO on July 12 and the Manhattan Transfer share the stage with the symphony on July 19.

Established artists, from Elton John and Genesis to the Scorpions and Metallica, have tried their hands at orchestrated rock. Some pieces sound great and others are a step above of Muzak.

The CSO's soaring string section and stirring woodwinds elevated some of Folds' solo works to epic proportions. "Annie Waits" and "Zac and Sara," two piano heavy tracks, sounded lush and new with the symphonic treatment. Folds incorporated a full gospel choir and orchestration to "Jesusland," making the song sound like something out of the atheistic hymnal.

Folds is no stranger to repackaging his material. In 2009, he released "University A Cappella," a collection of his hits and misses rearranged by university a cappella groups. Folds went on to serve as a judge on "The Sing-Off," an a cappella singing competition reality show on NBC.

While the show reinvented some old favorites, it broke a little new ground. Folds unveiled his recently written "Concerto for Piano and Orchestra."

The singer couldn't find a record company to help him release it so the Ben Folds Orchestral Experience was the best place for him to showcase his classical side.

"Releasing a piano concerto is not really a good business plan," he says with a laugh.

One of the unusual highlights of the night came with Folds' ever-changing opus "Rock That B*tch." Since 2002, he has made it a tradition when a member of the audience yells out "Rock That B*tch," he comes up with a song on the fly. His song "Cologne" was born from one of those spontaneous moments on stage.

Coming up with a spur-of-the-moment song is a lot easier when it's just a singer and his piano. Doing something extemporaneous with a 70-piece orchestra takes a little more finesse.

Watching Folds come up with a melody, dissect it, give parts of it to the symphony and compose a song in five minutes not only showed how the singer's brain works but how easily the symphony can follow something completely unplanned.

Folds hopes the audience comes back to see the symphony when all the notes are planned out.

"I don't mean to (dump) on my own music because it's pretty good," Folds joked. "But you want to come back and see them do amazing stuff. This is like 'Wet T-shirt Contest Night' to bring people in so they can pay for all the cool stuff they are going to do next year."

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From This Author Paul Batterson

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