Ben's Symphony Orchestra

Talk about the ultimate back-up band: Ben Folds performs his 'punk music for sissies' with the BSO this weekend.


Ben Folds thought he was too old for a rock band the moment he formed one. Now, at 39, he almost seems too young to be playing with a symphony orchestra.

But that's what he's doing this week as he dumps his touring band and performs three shows with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. For Folds -- whose smart, piano-based rock has won fans across the spectrum -- it's not so much about expanding his repertoire as helping secure the future of the orchestra in America.

"What this is essentially about is the orchestras retaining their existence and their funding and their audience by inserting the equivalent of a wet T-shirt contest in once a week to get a different crowd coming in," Folds said in an interview yesterday, before his first rehearsal with the BSO.

He quickly added, "At the onset, it's possibly viewed as a cheap thing. But we're realizing that it doesn't have to be done cheaply. It can actually be interesting."

Folds played with the Western Australia Symphony earlier this year. His BSO performances mark his debut with an American orchestra, and he hopes to do more such work. The orchestras approached him, and his music -- already featuring the occasional cello or violin -- lent itself well to large ensembles.

For the BSO, it's a chance to bring in a different and younger crowd to hear the orchestra. Folds' concerts this week -- which will feature up to 16 of his own songs played with a 70-piece orchestra -- are the inaugural shows of the BSO's new "Pop Rocks" series. The series also brings Elvis Costello to Baltimore in April.

Sales have been swift for Folds' three shows: About 95 percent of tickets are already sold.

At rehearsal yesterday, Folds seemed only slightly out of place. With his long, curly hair and T-shirt-and-jeans attire, he was the most casually dressed musician on stage. But, while either sitting at a Steinway concert grand piano or telling the percussion section to "go freaky," he projected a calm and confident demeanor.

It's only once the show starts that Folds is known for going a bit crazy. On his Web site is a video that shows him giving his piano a good beating -- which slightly alarmed some of the BSO players, especially since the Steinway Folds is using here is owned by the BSO.

"Some of those videos are pretty wild, and I thought, `Do we need to take out some extra insurance on our piano?'" said Brian Prechtl, a musician in the BSO's percussion section. But Prechtl enjoyed playing with Folds because the songwriter makes it a collaborative process, and he's open to ideas that bring in new audiences.

"Just having people know where the Meyerhoff is -- that alone is part of the battle," Prechtl said. "It'll be interesting to see if the orchestra can do some of that reinventing but still retain what's great about what we do, which is playing great music of all kinds but particularly great classical music. That has to remain part of our core mission."

Folds has described his music as "punk rock for sissies" -- the lyrics are clever, the melodies are catchy and the songs alternate between fast, pounding numbers and pretty, haunting ballads. When, as during yesterday's rehearsal, a symphony is added with harps, cellos, horns and percussion, the music takes on a rich, lush quality that always seemed to be just under the surface.

That could be due to Folds' experience with symphony orchestras. He played percussion in orchestras from the age of 8 to about 20 before moving in more of a rock direction. He formed Ben Folds Five in 1994. The band actually had three members: Folds on piano and lead vocals, a drummer and a bassist.

The group put out two of the most energetic, freewheeling power pop albums of the '90s: their self-titled debut in 1995 and Whatever and Ever Amen, which went platinum (more than 1 million copies sold). But the group would put out just one more album in 1999 before disbanding.

Folds, who has put out solo albums since and often tours with a backing band, said that rock bands are good vehicles for marketing pop music but it wasn't for him long-term.

"You've got several personalities, you've got something people can believe in, you know, `Here are the guys who always hang out together,'" he said. "People like the gang thing, but it's for boys. There are so many different things to do in music.

"I honestly think the only reason people continue after two or three years with a band is simply because of the money. And it would have been a better business for me to stick with it. But creatively, now I can do things like this."

Now, Folds said, the orchestra is his band. For this kind of experiment to work, he said, the orchestra must be incorporated into the music, not just provide window dressing. Otherwise, he said, the musicians can feel like they're participating in something "cheesy."

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