News Column

Ben Folds (not bends) the Philadelphia Orchestra to his musical will

June 24, 2014

By Jonathan Takiff, Philadelphia Daily News

June 24--THERE MAY BE some grumbling in the ranks of the Philadelphia Orchestra tonight, Ben Folds anticipates, when the sophisticated singer-songwriter/pianist, professorial talent judge ("The Sing-Off") and fledgling concerto composer meets up with our legendary symphony.

"The Ben Folds Orchestral Experience" at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts will feature excerpts from Folds' new (first!) concerto, a big bunch of his pop gems -- and one of the best and most serious backup bands in the world.

"I feel the musicians' pain," Folds shared recently. "I've done a bunch of these shows with symphonies. Most players don't know me from Adam. They operate in a world of their own, feel territorial and some -- not all -- feel threatened working with a pop guy. They worry I'll be asking them to dumb it down."

RELATED: Sir Mix-A-Lot and the Seattle Symphony give "Baby Got Back" a classical spin.

During rehearsals, Folds has heard symphony guys "make funny remarks under their breath -- 'Let's go to letter J [in the score] for joke.' Sometimes, they even alter the score, write in 'corrections' because they don't like the harmonies.

"It's a small minority that's like that, but they can be disruptive for the first half-hour of rehearsal," Folds said, "until I win them over."

It helps that he won't make our orchestra compete with "screaming electric guitar, bass and drums, as many symphonic rock shows demand. Trying to outshout a rock band and playing with cotton in their ears can be so demoralizing, and it's such a waste of their great skills and dynamics."

And in concert, Folds is very much the awestruck enthusiast, sharing his own classical roots (as a percussionist) and urging listeners to dig deeper into the world of symphonic music.

First under fire

That's lucky for all concerned here, as Folds is the laboratory guinea pig for the Mann, kick-starting the Philadelphia Orchestra's poppiest summer season ever at the West Fairmount Park shed.

"I'm pulling them out of their comfort zone of dead 19th- and 20th-century German composers," Folds mused.

What's the Fab Philadelphians' take on all this? Most players we reached out to declined comment.

The Mann has "been evolving in this [pop] direction for several years," Mann president and CEO Catherine Cahill said recently, though in summers past the visiting Pittsburgh Symphony and Russian National Orchestra handled most of the mid-brow musical chores.

"We've become a single-admission concert hall, with a commitment and mission to serve as diverse an audience as possible," Cahill explained. "The years of the Philadelphia Orchestra producing a glorious six-week, 18-concert classical subscription series are sadly behind us. There isn't the audience anymore to support it. We've got a lot more seats to fill than the Kimmel Center does."

The orchestra wants to "be supportive of the Mann with their new vision," Philadelphia Orchestra president and CEO Allison Vulgamore said yesterday. "What's important is finding great scores that use the depth of the Philadelphia Orchestra and successfully reach alternative audiences."

Functioning now as Mann Center hired guns, the orchestra players also will focus their decades of serious training on sugar-sweet pop tenors (the Simon Cowell-masterminded Italian trio Il Volo, on Thursday), and a free-admission, gospel-meets-the-symphony outing (July 19) headlined by Marvin Sapp boasting a large choir and world premiere work by Philly composer Uri Caine, honoring the life and legacy of local civil-rights pioneer Octavius V. Catto.

Our Philly symph likewise will toil as a Hollywood soundstage orchestra, playing the score "live" to "Gladiator" (July 18), "West Side Story" (July 30) and "Star Trek Into Darkness" (July 31) as the movies otherwise play on big screens and speakers.

While truer to Mann traditions, the Philadelphia Orchestra's two Fairmount Park shows labeled "classical" fall into a Time-Life Records "Greatest Symphonic Hits of All Time" vein, drilling down with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (Friday), then an all-audience request, "People's Choice" free admission show (Aug. 1) being organized by the gang at WRTI.

And to fill three nights at the Kimmel Center that the Philadelphia Orchestra had already rented and were being paid for under the players' 52-week contract, their own management has demanded the band make like they're doing at the Mann on Broad Street, too.

First with two evenings of symphed-up Beatles music -- "Classical Mystery Tour" complete with clone vocal quartet (July 23-24) that previously appeared with the Philly Pops -- then a night of "Pixar in Concert" July 25, repeating a popular show of cartoon movie themes the orchestra did at the Mann.

One orchestra member said most of the ensemble probably resents having to play pops. "We used to leave the pops to the Philly Pops," said the player, who wanted to remain anonymous. "Now our Mann schedule is mostly pops with a token classical concert or two. Also an increasing share of our seasons at Vail and Saratoga are pops, even if our management tries to frame them as 'light classical.'"

But the Fab Four shows do have at least one Fab Philadelphian excited.

"I have loved the Beatles ever since they first arrived in the United States in 1964," orchestra contrabassoonist Holly Blake said. "They were the greatest of their genre and of their generation. Not only were they innovators in the world of popular music, but their music will endure like the greatest of the classics. This show will be quite a change of pace for the Philadelphia Orchestra, but I know it will be fun."

Ben digs 'em

Clearly, times are tough for artists working in the classical world and "in all kinds of music, really," said Folds, who tracks such things as a board member of the Nashville Symphony.

"The symphony is the highest vibration of music, capable of all kinds of power and nuance. They don't need to be doing wet T-shirt nights with cheesy [stuff] to survive. But on the other hand . . . they need to be aware that some people are listening to Kanye West on the way to the show."

Even with tour sponsorship from carmaker Acura, Folds has taken a serious pay cut to do this symphony run, which also features a vocal chorus of "eight to 10 -- not that many." His poshed-up pop tunes boast "really good, challenging charts by Paul Buckmaster," best known from his work with Elton John.

And his concerto touches on American icons like George Gershwin and the romantic tonal colors of Ravel, "the ultimate master of orchestration."

If he's feeling their support, Folds sometimes pulls the orchestra into improvising a song based on an audience member's suggestion. And "for the last couple of shows," he's taken to doing encores with the orchestra, too.

"The audience will roar if I come back alone. It's because they're now thinking they can shout out requests. But that cheering sends the wrong message to the orchestra," he said. "I want them to feel as loved by the audience as they are by me."

Ben Folds Orchestral Experience with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Steven Reineke conducting, Mann Center for Performing Arts, 52nd Street and Parkside Avenue, 8 tonight, $15-$49.50, 215-893-1999,




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