Symphony style: Ben Folds brings piano rock to St. Louis


Ben Folds is a solo piano act. He oftentimes has a touring band supporting him on stage and other instruments on his records, but there is never a doubt who is driving the music. That dynamic shifts considerably when 60 world-class symphony musicians join the fray, as was the case Sunday night at Powell Hall. Billed as “An evening with Ben Folds,” it was not initially clear whether the show was simply Folds and a piano, or if the symphony would be joining.

Upon further investigation, however, it was found that the St. Louis Symphony would be joining the fold, with Folds’ past symphony shows receiving rave reviews. With the hype built from perusing previous encounters critics had with his symphony collaborations, the excitement for what was in store instantly grew.

Powell Hall was filled with an excitement as to what the night may hold which was evident immediately upon arriving to the venue. The lobby played host to a whole slew of different folks interacting and mingling with one another. Dads who had probably been Folds fans since the 90s, couples that had season tickets to the symphony and younger music fans like myself made for a site that could only be experienced. Seeing t-shirts of grunge bands intermingled with suits and evening dresses only solidified the theory that this assortment of individuals could only be brought together by an individual like Folds.

Those brought together on this Sunday evening were not disappointed by any means. Folds’ entrance, which was promptly at 7:30, served as a reminder that this was a rocker in a symphonies’ world. Welcomed by a deafening roar of the crowd, which sold all but the nosebleed seats, Folds jumped immediately into “Effington” followed by “Mess.”

The symphony had an immediate impact on Folds’ music. His voice seemed swallowed up by the overwhelming percussion and brass, though this seemed to be a technical issue that was resolved quickly after presenting itself. The strings section comprised at least half of the symphony, and helped Folds’ music soar during its high parts. During “Capable of Anything,” the string musicians played furiously, creating an ocean of noise that grew to match the intensity with which Folds played his piano.

The songs that really thrived with the symphonic addition were those off of Folds’ latest album, “So There,” released in 2015. This is most likely due to the collaboration on all of its songs with Music, a string-centric music ensemble who played on each of its songs. The album includes eight “normal” songs and caps off with a three-movement concerto that Folds was commissioned to write for the Nashville Ballet. Both sections of the album were touched on Sunday, with Folds showcasing both the second and third movement of the concerto.

It was nothing short of fascinating to see Folds interact with the symphony. Though he comes from an incredibly skilled piano background, it still seemed as if he was sticking out from the rest of the backing band. Be it his unorthodox style of playing, which included constant elbow and arm movement, or his lack of sheet music, even during the concerto he was alone from the symphony.

Folds’ presence also had an effect on the symphony members. The often uber-serious professionals lightened up, interacting with Folds at times, and laughing at his quips. At one point, Folds, when talking about the members of the symphony, quipped “While we were souping up cars and kissing girls in high school, they were not.” An obviously light-hearted joke remarking on the thousands of hours the musicians have committed to their craft got a great response from the crowd and symphony alike.

Throughout this set, Folds constantly displayed his ability to make truly remarkable music. From powerfully heavy pieces from “The Luckiest” and “Brick” to upbeat pop-hits “Zak and Sara” and “One Angry Dward and 200 Solemn Faces,” the set was packed front to back with phenomenal selections. While not all may enjoy Folds’ nasally delivery of his lyrics, the crowd ate up every word he had to sing. It seemed to be his voice may have been why he was so lovable to all in attendance, because its imperfectness was in direct contrast to everything we expect from symphonic performances.

Though the night was full of highlights, one stands among the rest as the absolute best. That being when Folds created an entire song, symphony included, from scratch before the crowds’ eyes. Titled “Last Night In Sweden,” Folds instructed the brass on the progression of chords to play, then added in the strings and percussion, who were able to pick up his instructions as quickly as he could create them. The genius of Folds’ mind was center-stage, and the crowd sat in awe of the creation occurring before their eyes. After this work of magic, Folds implored the audience to continually support the symphony, and with an incredible night such as the one that occurred on Sunday, one can only imagine they will do exactly that.