Review: Ben Folds and St. Louis Symphony Rock Powell Hall

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

On Saturday night, Ben Folds shouted out to the Powell Symphony Hall audience, “You do know St. Louis Symphony is one of the greatest symphonies in the world, right?” They did, and they were witnessing it as the Steven Jarvi-led symphony backed rocker Folds through many of his best known songs, as well as the first movement of Fold’s newly written piano concerto for piano and symphony. Throw in the eclectic mix of a song improvised on the spot and his playful conducting of the audience as a vocal choir as well as a couple of solo encores, and the concert was a rollicking, feel-good, emphatic evening with America’s quintessential indie rocker poet.

Ben Folds Photo by Joshua Black Wilkins

Ben Folds
Photo by Joshua Black Wilkins

Backed by an eight-man chorus, the show opened with the driving pulse of, “Effington,” then right into waltz-like, “Smoke,” illustrating Folds’ penchant for drawing from any and all existing music styles. Then he and the orchestra moved deftly through “Jesusland,” a criticism of soulessness in spite of blind religious devotion, and “Picture Window,” which declares that “hope is a bastard.”

Performing with orchestras is nothing new for Folds, having made his first orchestral appearance with West Australian Symphony Orchestra in 2005 and several since, including one previous appearance with SLSO. But only recently Folds began writing specifically for an orchestra with his concerto for piano and orchestra, the first movement of which had a St. Louis debut. The first part was like a frenetic Gershwin piece run delightfully amok, and featured Folds striking his piano strings directly, the waltzy middle, and the soaring finale which reminded one of a tragic love story.

Many other favorites were played to the delight of the audience. “Fred Jones: Part 2,” “Zak and Sarah,” and the humorous “Steven’s Last Night,” with the orchestra accompanying with circus-like aplomb. Fans also heard “Annie Waits,” the heartbreakingly tender “The Luckiest,” and of course “Brick,” well supported with excellent work by the violin section.

St. Louis also was the beneficiary of Folds’ penchant for directing the audience as a chorus, something he did in the first orchestral appearance in Australia. Perhaps the most surprising part of the evening occurred when someone in the audience yelled out, “Make one up.” He decided to do exactly that, to the surprise and delight of the orchestra. He assigned each section a part, plucking out the notes, dividing up the various parts and chords, as each section in turn began a vamp, on which Folds kept building. A couple of sections however, were unable to comply. His call for a trumpet mariachi solo went unanswered, as did his call to the timpani for “some George of the Jungle stuff,” and then again when he called for a saxophone solo “just like the ’80s.” Then Folds improvised some funny lyrics, namely saying where he is staying at the casino was “douche central.” The impromptu piece brought the house to its feet for a standing O.

Folds’ two solo encores included the grandiose classical piece, “Narcolepsy,” and “Army,” two of Folds’ signature songs. When all was sung and done, the audience members who packed the Powell were even bigger fans of Folds than at the start of the evening. He clearly delights in playing live with an orchestra, and creating the kind of relationship with concertgoers that keep them coming back for more.

Ben Folds and St. Louis Symphony, April 12
Set list

“Effington”
“Smoke”
“Jesusland”
“Picture Window”
“Piano Concerto (1st movement)”
“Landed”
“Fred Jones, Pt. 2”
“Steven’s Last Night in Town”
Intermission
“Zak and Sara”
“Improvised Piece (Rockin’ This Bitch)”
“Cologne”
“Annie Waits”
“The Luckiest”
“Not the Same”
“Brick”
“One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces”
“Narcolepsy”
Encore (solo)
“Best Imitation of Myself”
“Army”

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