June 27, 2014 by Shane O'Connor
Ben Folds helped kick off the Philadelphia Orchestra’s summer season at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts with a performance June 24. The show was a part of the Ben Folds Orchestral Experience, featuring a piano concerto composed by Folds as well as many of his pop hits.
This was the Philadelphia Orchestra’s first show after completing a tour of Asia, including stops in China, Japan and Taiwan. The conductor for this performance was Steven Reineke. He is a very sought-after pop conductor who has worked with orchestras all across the country. After a brief introduction by president and CEO of the Mann, Catherine Cahill, Reineke got the concert underway.
Following a brief orchestral intro, Folds appeared on stage to a thunderous round of applause. With a career spanning almost 20 years, he has a large catalogue of songs, a wide fan base and experience playing with orchestras before. Although the Mann’s band shell was only half-full, there was a large crowd on the lawn that made its presence known when Folds took the stage with the orchestra.
Sitting at the piano in front of the tens of musicians and a crowd of thousands, Folds seemed right at home as he launched into the opening song, “Effington.” Folds’ concerts usually consist of just him on stage with a piano, so having a whole orchestra backing him up was extremely exciting. Songs like “Smoke,” “Jesusland,” and “Picture Window” take on a whole new sound. There’s more depth to the arrangements and all of the different instruments add so many dimensions to the songs. “Smoke” in particular was a standout track. The string and woodwind sections sounded incredible and really boosted a song that falters a bit on the album.
The main reason for Folds’ going on this orchestra tour is to show off the piano concerto he spent a whole year writing. Folds was the first to admit that 2014 is “not the year of the piano concerto” before giving the crowd the “pinhead’s version” of what a concerto is made up of. There are three movements. The first has the “big hook” that grabs the audience’s attention that is followed by a slower second movement before building into a triumphant third movement. Folds said that’s where the composer “gets to show off” and that the third movement is “generally where you are going to throw your bra.”
Folds is known for his asides to the crowd in between songs and this concert was no different. He prefaced “Fred Jones, Part 2” by saying that the song’s titular character was inspired by the local newspaper editor who got fired, and how the song reflects that newspapers are a dying breed. (That is something I am very familiar with!) On the next song, “Steven’s Last Night in Town,” Folds shed some light on the funny story behind the song and the odd lyric, “Lost points with the ladies for sayin’ he couldn’t love a woman with cellulite.”
After a brief intermission, Folds and the orchestra came back and played the crowd-pleasing “Zak and Sara.” This song was the first time that Folds adopted his trademark stand-up playing style and it was met with applause from the audience. Following the heartfelt song “Gracie,” Folds gave a short speech about why “world-class” orchestras like Philadelphia’s need to be supported.
Putting it succinctly, “We need the orchestra more than the orchestra needs us.” He then encouraged the crowd to come see the orchestra play classical pieces like Beethoven because concerts with pop artists like himself are “really just wet T-shirt contests to get people in the seats.”
“Not the Same” was the standout track of the night. Folds showed the audience how to sing along with the chorus and he signaled them to sing throughout the song. Standing at the mic stand, away from his piano, it was the orchestra and the crowd backing up Folds’ performance. Next up was “Brick,” the ballad that put Ben Folds on the map back in 1997. For an encore, Folds played a raucous rendition of “One Angry Dwarf & 200 Solemn Faces.” Although the crowd stayed around, begging for an encore, unfortunately Folds and the Philadelphia Orchestra did not oblige.
The Mann is a fantastic place to see a concert. Whether you are seated inside the amphitheater or laid out on a blanket on the lawn, you can’t go wrong. There’s something special about taking in a great performance with fireflies lazily drifting through the air as the stars shine overhead. Ben Folds playing with the Philadelphia Orchestra was a fantastic concert and if you have a chance to catch the orchestra at the Mann this summer, I recommend that you take it.