MUSIC | Ben Folds at Orchestra Hall: A beautifully awkward symphony


Combine the renowned Minnesota Orchestra with pop-star singer/songwriter Ben Folds‘s vocals and piano and what you get is an enchanting symphony of  bittersweet melodies, quirky lyrics, epic instrumental talent, and nostalgia for Ben Folds Five, before the year 2000. Looking at the audience who sang along, it was evident that the feeling was mutual.

Ben Folds performed gems from both his later and more recent releases with pop-music playfulness and an energetic stage presence that complemented the classical instruments of the MN Orchestra on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011 at Orchestra Hall. Sarah Hicks, principal conductor of pops presentations, led the orchestra.

The concert was made even more memorable by the extra treat given by Folds who took time to perform impromptu pieces, playfully leading the instrumental sections on his piano and ad-libbing lyrics along the way. Folds also interacted with the audience as he conducted singing sections. When the time came for the musicians to leave the stage, Folds remained and extended the performance with more audience participation, on-the-fly songwriting and piano playing. It was clear that Folds enjoyed entertaining his fans with back stories and quips before each set and it was just as apparent that his fans appreciated his wit, talent and energy and loved him for the attention and time he gave to his Minneapolis audience.

The lineup was as follows:

– “Effington” (Stems and Seeds) 
– “Smoke” (Whatever and Ever Amen)
– “The Ascent of Stan” (Rockin’ the Suburbs)
– “Still Fighting It” (Rockin’ the Suburbs)
– “Picture Window” (co-written with Nick Hornby)
– “Adelaide”  (Supersunnyspeedgraphic, LP)
– “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces” (Whatever and Ever Amen)
– “Steve’s Last Night in Town (Whatever and Ever Amen)
– “Landed (Songs For Silvermen)
– “Brick” (Whatever and Ever Amen)
– “Not The Same” (Rockin’ the Suburbs)
– Song improvisation with Sarah Hicks, leading orchestra
– “Cologne” (Stems and Seeds)
– “Narcolepsy (The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner)
– In response to the encore, Ben Folds returns to improvise another song about the MN       symphony
– “Hiro’s Song” (Rockin’ the Suburbs)
– “Army” (The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner)

Many of Folds’s songs are about awkward youth, and strong emotional moments and attachments, but with a humorous commentary. Attending this concert gave me some of the aforementioned nostalgia; Whatever and Ever Amen (1997) is the Ben Folds Five album that reminds me of my later teen years. The melodies that Ben Folds composes combined with his quirky lyrics capture my own awkward and bittersweet memories. I am glad that I can laugh at them and breathe a sigh of relief that such moments are behind me, or so I’d like to believe. With the help of Ben Folds, such moments can at least be remembered with humor, whether captured in haunting melodies or catchy pop ditties. The MN Orchestra came perfectly together with Folds’s performance, adding a symphonic magic. 

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