By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -
An evening with Ben Folds is full of surprises.
The surprise at the Grand Rapids Symphony’s D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops for the first-timers was when Folds’ fans sang along him. Not in the sense of singing along, word for word, as any fan might. But on songs such as “So There” and “One Angry Dwarf,” singing in tandem, as if they were at “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” and everyone knows the audience-participation routine.
Yet even for the Folds fanatics, there were surprises. Best of all, the Ben Folds Five became the Ben Folds Sixty Five, thanks to the Grand Rapids Symphony on Friday, Aug. 3 at Cannonsburg Ski Area.
Guest conductor Jacomo Bairos, a regular collaborator with Folds as well as a frequent collaborator with the Grand Rapids Symphony, brought the two together for the one-night only special event to close the D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops.
Bairos and the orchestra opened the show was a flamboyant romp through George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” Suite.
The frequent fans who have followed Folds’ career from fronting the alt-rock group Ben Folds Five to appearing as a judge for several season on NBC’s The Sing Off” likely were surprised to learn Folds is a huge fan and big supporter of symphony orchestras. For the past year, he’s been on staff with the National Symphony Orchestra at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as an artistic advisor.
With Bairos and the Grand Rapids Symphony, Folds played a movement from his 21-minute Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, a 2015 piece that several years ago topped the Billboard Classical and Billboard Classical Crossover charts at the same time. The piece isn’t an ultra-serious work but it is substantial with repeated melodic figures and fiery rhythms for soloist and for the orchestra as well.
Most fans, of course, came for the hits, including the cheeky “Effington,” which wound up the audience, and “So There,” which wound up the orchestra.
It sure sounded like the orchestra was having fun as much as the audience.
Along the way, the North Carolina native told the audience, early in his career, he had a regular gig with a band at Northern Michigan’s Schuss Mountain.
“The band was called ‘The Schussy Cats,’” he said.
The biggest surprise, though not entirely a surprise, was Folds’ improvisational create-a-song –on-the-spot with a symphony orchestra. It wasn’t entirely a surprise because it’s been a staple of Folds shows for years. He did it the first time he appeared with the Grand Rapids Symphony in DeVos Performance Hall in October 2014.
It still was a bit of a surprise because it wasn’t slotted into the show. In the second half, fans because shouting for it, and Folds went for it.
For the next 12 minutes or so, Folds played and sang fragments of music to the audience, called out instructions what to do or not do. In the end, with Folds singing “Rock This Bitch at the Picnic Pops,” co-conspirators Bairos led the Grand Rapids Symphony in a startlingly spectacular musical moment that ended in a standing ovation.
Before the night was over, the plain-spoken, shoot-from-the-hip entertainer told the audience they were lucky to have “one of the best orchestras in the country” in their community.
“There are two kinds of cities,” he said. “There are cities with great orchestras, and then there are cities that are crap.”
The concert as well as the entire 2018 D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops season ended in semi-darkness, the stage bathed in deep shades of indigo and magenta, with couples cuddling as Folds sang “The Luckiest.”
A perfect ending for “Symphony under the Sky” at Cannonsburg.