Music Review: Ben Folds premieres his new piano concerto with the Nashville Symphony

There would seem to be a lot more rock than Rachmaninoff in Ben Folds, the popular Nashville-based singer, songwriter and, as of late, composer of glittering virtuoso showpieces.

folds-ctoFollowing the world premiere of his new Concerto for Piano and Orchestra on Thursday night with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, Folds was called on to play an encore. Not being Rachmaninoff, though, Folds confessed that he didn’t know any instrumental pieces (“other than the one I just made up”). So as a kind of compromise, he led the packed Schermerhorn Symphony Center in a rollicking, sing-along rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.”

That encore, along with the excitement created by the new concerto, seemed to have an intoxicating effect on the audience. Indeed, the euphoria of the evening inspired the people on my shuttle bus to sing Freddie Mercury’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” all the way back to LP Field. Now, that had to be a first for a classical subscription crowd.

In an interview with the Nashville Scene, Folds described his new concerto as “proudly and overtly derivative.” True enough, but to his credit Folds borrowed from the best. Over the course of his three-movement, 21-minute-long concerto, one heard passages that sounded a little like Prokofiev here, a lot like Gershwin and Ravel there. Folds was convincing in the way he assimilated those influences, though, and his unmistakable, idiosyncratic piano style (which he has described as “piano for left-handed drummer”) was never far from the surface.

BenFoldsThe 10-minute-long, fast first movement contained the most pastiche. The movement opened with an extended tutti section that was unapologetically romantic, sounding like something that could have been composed by Robert Schumann. Folds interrupted this serenade with an angry bass tremolo and then launched into a Gershwinesque romp. A pair of appealing lyrical sections added nice contrast.

The highlight of the concerto, for my money, was the slow second movement, which featured one of Folds’ most inspired, sweetly simple melodies. He played this music with immediacy and heartfelt emotion. The fast finale was a lively duel between piano and orchestra that often saw Folds muting piano strings with his left hand while his right hand pounded out rock rhythms.

Folds’ new concerto was far from perfect. He rarely developed themes, preferring instead to stich disparate motifs together. The result was a musical tapestry that often showed its seams. The concerto’s orchestration also lacked a singular voice, probably because film scorer Joachim Horsely helped Folds orchestrate the piece. According to the program notes, Horsely assured Folds that Prokofiev used an orchestrator. The history of Russian music – from stories about Tchaikovsky killing himself to Shostakovich loading his music with anti-Stalinist messages – is rife with false rumors. Sorry, but the composer of Peter and the Wolf scored his own concert music.

All that said, one could find little fault with the performance. Guerrero and his musicians played this unfamiliar music with precision and color. Folds, for his part, gave an exhilarating performance that often kept the crowd at the edge of its collective seat.

There were probably a lot of first-time classical concertgoers at Thursday’s performance, so Guerrero delivered the rest of his program in bite-sized chunks – few pieces lasted more than 20 minutes (and even that must seem like an eternity in the Twitter Age).

The concert opened with the Prelude and “Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Guerrero found plenty of urgency and mystery in the tonally ambiguous music that opens the Prelude. I was less convinced by his breezy interpretation of “Liebestod,” which seemed more like a high school crush than the erotic duality of love and death that Wagner had in mind.

Guerrero and the NSO’s rendition of Bartok’s Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, on the other hand, was a breathtaking demonstration of orchestral virtuosity at its most ferocious. The program included one other piece: Rossini’s “William Tell” Overture. The musicians played this music with energy and joy, winning a bigger ovation than the one Folds got at the end of the concert. Who would have guessed that Bugs Bunny would be even more popular than Ben Folds?

IF YOU GO

The Nashville Symphony’s performances of Ben Folds’ Piano Concerto at 8 p.m. Friday, March 14 and Saturday, March 15 are sold out. Disappointed Folds fans should contact the symphony (615) 687-6400 to check for last-minute cancellations. Better yet, click here to reserve tickets to hear Folds and the NSO perform the concerto with the Nashville Ballet May 2-4 at TPAC.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.