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Critic Tim Smith covers classical music, theater and visual arts in Baltimore and beyond
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Ben Folds' 'Orchestra Experience' tour includes BSO

Classical (Music Genre)ConcertsMusicCultureMusic IndustryBaltimore Symphony OrchestraMeyerhoff Symphony Hall

The worlds of pop and classical music do not meet all that often — or all that well, as a rule — but certain artists have proved quite adept at bridging the gap. Ben Folds is one of them.

The Winston-Salem, N.C.-born, Nashville-based songwriter and pianist has been on an international tour billed as the Ben Folds Orchestra Experience. The tour brings him to Charm City on Thursday for a concert with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which first joined Folds in a gig nine years ago.

That 2005 program featured Folds songs enhanced with orchestral arrangements. This week's show will do the same, but also will offer something purely instrumental — a movement from Folds' new Piano Concerto.

With this ambitious score, which he premiered in March with the Nashville Symphony, Folds joins a small niche of pop/rock musicians who have explored classical idioms. Paul McCartney has written oratorios, for example, and Billy Joel has penned several works for solo piano. Former Police drummer Stewart Copeland's credits include an opera and a percussion concerto.

The Folds concerto has received a range of reactions on the tour. After a stop in Ireland last week, one reviewer greeted it as "a stellar feat of musicality," while another found it "a little stilted."

"I'm in this to communicate, not to further the field," Folds, 47, says by phone from Dublin.

Communicating comes naturally to Folds. With his cute-nerdy looks and affable demeanor, he connects easily with people, which he has been doing since his career started rolling in the 1990s.

And he can easily hold a crowd in the palm of his hand, as he did last November, when he gave the Kennedy Center's otherwise rather stodgy American Voices concert a big boost with an audience-participation version of his 2001 song "Not the Same."

That song, one of more than two dozen showcased on Folds' orchestral tour, typifies his ability to sculpt ear-catching melodic lines with fresh-sounding harmonic progressions, all in support of lyrics that have a pronounced poetic edge.

A case in point — the biting lyrics and haunting tune of "Jesusland," evoking a less-than-ecstatic Second Coming: "Town to town, broadcast to each house/They drop your name but no one knows your face/Billboards quoting things you'd never say/You hang your head and pray."

Folds, with his band Ben Folds Five, has addressed the emotional topic of abortion in "Brick," and, on one of his solo albums, created wry social comments on contemporary life, notably in "Effington." (That song's sharp opening line, "If there is a God, he is laughing at us and our football team," might get a sudden sales boost in Brazil.)

More than a dozen examples of Folds' distinctive songwriting — Kevin Joy of the Columbus Dispatch calls it "smarty-pants pop" — are expected on the BSO program, led by a New York-based conductor, Eric Jacobsen, used to working in multiple genres.

Classical musicians are not always eager to cross over to the pop field, but Folds tries to make them feel at home.

"I do not treat the orchestra like an orchestra," Folds says, "but like an entire band."

A band with strings, woodwinds and brass, not to mention percussion.

"Most of my songs are conducive to orchestrating," Folds says. "Almost anything works, except the typical eighth-note rock groove. It's kind of tough to make that work for an orchestra, like turning 'Jingle Bells' into heavy metal."

The orchestral environment is not unfamiliar to Folds.

"I played percussion in a youth orchestra from the time I was really small," he says, "and I took it very seriously. I played a lot of classical music, but I was playing triangle — counting 75 measures of rests. Classical wasn't natural for me. As a kid, I was more interested in R&B and music most people would find odd, like [English rock band] 10cc."

Gradually, Folds focused more on keyboard than percussion, and his career took off. He may have left classical music behind, but it didn't entirely leave him.

Over the decades, he picked up pointers on orchestration when he arranged string parts for recordings ("You learn a lot that way, dictating changes on the fly"), and, last year, he started thinking about composing for piano and orchestra.

This interest did not spring from studying and playing piano classics on the side.

"I can't just read music and make my fingers play it," he says. "Maybe something's wrong with my brain."

But Folds has heard his share of classical fare.

"I'm not one to be listening to a lot of Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn. That probably makes me a total [expletive]," he says. "But I heard some Mozart on a soundtrack that sounded huge, but it wasn't huge. I knew I wanted to study that. And I listened to Beethoven string quartets. Across the centuries, that's still pretty damn genius."

Lately, Folds has been checking out works by contemporary Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara.

"That's pretty [expletive] heavy," he says. "But I don't think an ounce of that is in my music."

An ounce or more of some other composers might be detected in Folds' Piano Concerto, especially such major figures from the early 20th century as Rachmaninoff, Ravel and Gershwin.

"I'm impressed most with that era," Folds says. "That's fun stuff. I think Gershwin's concerto is really good and really cool. It got people talking."

For his own concerto, Folds followed the traditional structure of three movements — fast, slow, fast.

"I like form. I respect form," he says. "I'm not that damn old, but when you've lived as long as I have, you've written a lot of songs and you understand a lot about form."

As for instrumentation for the concerto, Folds says he gave himself a course using computer software ("It's a damn shame in some ways, a little bit of an imagination-crusher"). He also had assistance from film composer Joachim Horsley.

When he isn't writing music or touring, Folds finds time for arts education advocacy. He also recently stirred up news in Nashville, arguing for the preservation of RCA Studio A, where many a notable recording was made. It could face demolition if a property development goes forward.

Meanwhile, Folds, who is a judge on NBC's reality-competition show "The Sing-Off," has a lot of tour dates ahead, giving quite a few classical ensembles a chance to play music by a pop music star and for a different kind of audience. Whether Folds fans leave these concerts eager to explore other kinds of orchestral experiences is not known.

"I can't make people care [about orchestras], but if I show I care enough, maybe they will, too," Folds says. "I have a feeling I'm making some kind of an impression."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

Ben Folds performs with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $46 to $88.60. Call 410-547-7328, or go to ticketmaster.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Classical (Music Genre)ConcertsMusicCultureMusic IndustryBaltimore Symphony OrchestraMeyerhoff Symphony Hall
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