Sunday, April 27, 2014

Ben Folds & the SLSO? Splendid!

Charlie Kinzer introduced me to Ben Folds around 1999.  Charlie was one of my best childhood friends, and one of the smartest kids I had ever met.  Back then my friends and I would would spend our nights firing up the dial-up modem and chatting on the ICQ instant messaging system.  As Charlie and I were chatting one night, he told me he was going to send me a song I should hear.  He sent me a copy of "Brick" by Ben Folds Five.  He said it was a great song, and that I would love it.  Fifteen years later, I do love the song.  But lately I've been thinking a lot about the night I first heard it.  I certainly did not understand the subject matter of the song, and now I wonder if Charlie understood the gravity of the lyrics.  I mean, he was the smartest person in our class, so maybe he did understand it.  I certainly didn't.

The second time I was really exposed to the music of Ben Folds was in my friend Kevin's car in 2005.  A group of us were making the trek from Champaign to West Lafayette, IN to watch the Illinois vs. Purdue basketball game.  Kevin was a HUGE Ben Folds fan, and we therefore listened to Ben Fold/Five the entire length of the journey.  At the time, I thought Kevin's devotion to the music was a little extreme, but I can admit I've always liked the way Ben can slip the word "fuck" into so many of his songs.

Over the years I grew more and more fond of the music, and I've been lucky enough to see him in concert a number of times, including last summer with Ben Folds Five.  Right on the heels of that Ben Folds Five concert last year, I found out that Ben would be playing a number of shows in 2014 with orchestras around the country.  Two dates with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra were announced, and that sealed the deal for me.  

I contacted one of my SAI sisters, Amber, who moved back to Missouri a couple years ago, and we got tickets.  We found out that another of our SAI sisters, Clare, would be in attendance the same night with her husband, and we made a plan to meet up for dinner and the show.  A week before the concert, I learned that the guy who taught my saxophone methods class in college would be playing with the SLSO for the concert.  How cool is that?  He's been playing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra this season as well, which is cool, but those shows did not include Ben Folds!  Holmes is so cool.  (Clearly.  Based on the number of times I used "cool" to describe him/his situation.)

I had enjoyed each of the three previous Ben Folds/Five concerts I attended, and this was no exception.  After the orchestra was situated on stage, Folds took to the piano and opened with one of my personal favorites, "Effington".  That song holds a special place in the hearts of Central Illinois fans, because it was inspired by his drive between Effingham, IL and Normal, IL for a show at Illinois State University.  The first part of the show included "Smoke", "Jesusland",  and "Picture Window".  At that point we were treated to the first movement of the piano concerto Ben had spent most of 2013 writing.  He'll soon be performing it with the Nashville Symphony and the Nashville Ballet.

The concerto movement was lovely.  I found it interesting that Ben's posture changed significantly during that piece.  While Folds is known for a more relaxed posture at the piano (sometime including standing in front of, or even on top of the keyboard), for this part of the performance, he sat up straight.  He didn't stomp his foot down on the pedals.  He demonstrated for the audience the removal of the tape he typically wears on his fingers to protect them while they bang into ivory for hours during a show.  He was a different performer.  The music was different, too, obviously.  The word "fuck" was nowhere to be found, for one.  But the music was still distinctively Ben Folds.  The influence of his rock music was apparent, but that only enhanced the concerto movement for me.  I wanted the piece to sound like a piano concerto composed by Ben Folds, and I truly believe he delivered that.

One of the illicit photos I surreptitiously took during the show 

The rest of the first set included "Landed, "Fred Jones pt. 2", and "Steven's Last Night in Town".  The last song of the set was terrific.  One of the few pieces that includes wind instruments in the original version, the orchestra was really able to make that piece come alive.  It kept the energy high going into intermission.

Following intermission (and one of the longest bathroom lines I have seen EVER), Folds and the SLSO took the stage for the second set.  They opened with "Zak and Sara", followed by "Cologne", which was preceded with a humorous story about the birth of the song while Ben was on tour in Europe.  Ben Folds is known by his fans for improvising music on stage.  This often starts with some fan shouting "Rock This Bitch" at the stage.  At that point, Folds will launch into an improvised song about whatever is on his mind at the time.  Thankfully this concert was no different in that regard.  What was pretty magical though, was how he incorporated the orchestra.  The sections of the orchestra were instructed to play different parts as he built the sound up from the bottom.  Over the top of the orchestra, he sang to us about how he was staying at the hotel with the casino (where our friends Clare & Bill stayed!) and the trouble with trying to eat healthy while on tour.  Apparently it's very difficult to eat vegetables when you're getting room service on the regular.

Instructing the instrumentalists on their parts for "Rock this Bitch"

The rest of the set was amazing.  After thoroughly rocking the bitch, he played the unmistakable opening chords to "Annie Waits".  That was actually a really interesting social experiment on audience reactions in different genres, but I'll get to that later.  Next we were treated to a somewhat rare performance of "The Luckiest", which was the first time I had heard him play it live.  That was followed by "Not the Same", which included some more patented Ben Folds on-stage shenanigans.  One of the reasons I really love seeing him live is because he invites audience participation.  For "Not the Same", he broke the audience into three voice parts, taught us a chord change by rote, and invited us to sing along on the chorus. 

Following "Not the Same", he played "Brick", and I thought of Charlie Kinzer.  Is that weird to think of your childhood best friend during a song about a teenage abortion?  Hmmm, that might be a thought to ponder another time.  Anyway, he wrapped things up with "One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces" and "Narcolepsy".  After a standing ovation, in which I happily participated, the orchestra left the stage, but Ben returned for an encore.  I'll be honest.  I don't remember what the first song he played was.  I know that for the Sunday night show, he played "Rockin' the Suburbs" first, but that wasn't the case on Saturday night.  He closed out the whole evening with the song "Army", which is one of my favorite Ben Folds songs ever.  I always hope he'll play "Army", but I was interested in whether or not he would perform it with the orchestra on this concert.  The song features a horn break in the middle, and a concert with an orchestra would be the perfect opportunity to perform it.  I have to admit, however, that he played it in my preferred way - by splitting the audience in half and having us sing the horn lines.  I seriously love that he invites audience participation.

Beyond my notes on the individual songs performed, I made notes about the performance as a whole.  I love that the conductor danced throughout the concert, even singing along at times.  You could tell he was an actual fan.  The lighting director for the event also did a great job.  I assume the lighting concept was a watered down version of what happens during a typical Ben Folds show, but seeing in the context of the orchestra concert really changed my perception of the performance.  I thought it might be distracting at first, but I found it totally enhanced my experience.  It was surprisingly wonderful.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the evening for my friend Amber and me was the eclectic mix of patrons at the concert.  There was a fair mix of Ben Folds fans and St. Louis Symphony Orchestra ticket holders.  The audience interactions made this distinction more apparent.  As I mentioned earlier, the song "Annie Waits" has a distinct opening that includes singular claps from the audience before the first verse.  For example:

Many Ben Folds fans in the audience clapped in time as we've been conditioned to do over the years.  The season ticket holders near my seats were noticeably startled when that happened.  Amber and I discussed our own internal struggle about appropriate behavior at the concert.  Both of us bridged the gap between Ben Folds fans and orchestra fans by being rock music loving classically trained musicians.  I would never yell or "WOO!" during an orchestra concert, but I absolutely do during rock shows.  Finding the appropriate response during this concert was interesting to say the least.

It was really a spectacular evening, though.  I was able to spend a night enjoying music I love, performed by musicians I admire (and 1 I know!), with people who bring me great happiness.  It may have taken me two weeks since the concert to finally write about it, but clearly that was because I have a lot of thoughts and feelings on the matter.  If you've made it to the end of this, gold star for you.  When I started writing it, I thought it would be a love letter.  I didn't know it would be a love tome.

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