Ben Folds Earns His Scholarship Back at UM's Festival Miami

By the end of the night, Folds won his scholarship back, sort of.
By the end of the night, Folds won his scholarship back, sort of.
Photo by Allan Amato

Ben Folds is a musical chameleon. Since the early days of the Ben Folds Five, when he was banging out cheeky, college kid, punk rock for nerds, Folds was paying homage to his heroes – namely George Gershwin – while deftly misdirecting our attention to his honest and often clever lyrics.

It might also surprise people to know that despite being known for his virtuoso piano playing, Folds began as a percussion major. In fact, he spent exactly one semester studying at the University of Miami, on scholarship, doing just that. Well, perhaps he didn't study too much since he flunked out and had his scholarship revoked.

Thirty years later, Folds has returned to his past loves and failures, coming full circle in bridging the gap between then and now, just as he's always brought together the complexities of classical music and the exuberance of modern pop rock. On Friday night, the Gusman Concert Hall hosted Folds and music from his latest record, So There, released in September.

The concert, part of UM Frost School of Music's annual Festival Miami series that runs from October to November, was divided into two halves. The first was a showcase for the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra, the school's premier graduate students and future professional musicians. The second half was devoted to Folds in several ways including an ode to his career, the performance of his “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra,” and a special surprise at the end. 

The show began on a high note as the HMI orchestra flawlessly performed “Escapades” from the film, Catch Me If You Can, the work of 20th century soundtrack master John Williams. It was a high energy, exultant number reminiscent of Hollywood thrill rides and daring near misses. The followup, Arvo Pärt's “Fratres,” was a beautiful and haunting string piece that resident conductor Scott Flavin described as “deeply spiritual.” Flavin himself wasn't just in charge of the orchestra, but of every emotion in the room, like a puppeteer manipulating invisible strings. The last piece of the opening half was “Mothership” by Mason Bates, a grand, soaring song with digital elements such as an electronic heartbeat.

Just as the concert was a mix of old and new, mixing a genre of music hundreds of years old with the stylings of a suburban smart ass, the crowd was also a strange blend. Sitting side by side were the music nerd college students that usually attend Ben Folds concerts (and, probably, UM) and the stiff, upper-middle class parents who pay the exorbitant tuitions for those same students. By the end of the night, Folds united them all.

Considering his personal history and varied career, it shouldn't be at all surprising to find Folds allying himself with orchestras these days. Having conquered radio, a capella, and reality TV as a judge on The Sing-Off, and having collaborated with an odd assortment of artists (Amanda Palmer, Nick Hornby, and William Shatner just to name a few), his new album, So There is a completely normal, and perhaps natural, next step in his world.

So There features 11 new songs. The first eight tracks were recorded with New York City's classical and pop hybrid outfit, yMusic, while the latter three, commissioned by the Nashville Ballet and the Minnesota Orchestra, was recorded with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.

Before Folds took the stage, HMI played an original piece, “Ben Folds Overture,” arranged by fellow, William Longo. The medley included some of Folds' best known songs: “One Angry Dwarf,” “The Luckiest,” “Brick,” and “Army,” presented in a jazzy, classical number. This overview in symphonic format was appropriate as once Folds appeared, he and the orchestra dove right into his concerto.

“Movement 1” was, at times, enchanting, and at other times, startling, but in an engaging and attention-grabbing way. Overall, the 21-minute concerto was a combination of old school dramatics and quirky experimentation. It very well could have been written for a psychedelic '70s movie with a harrowing and tragic story line. It's like a big MGM production masquerading as an independent foreign film. Because Folds is the picture of an unconventional pop star, he's equally just as maverick a composer and soloist. He played with the innards of his piano, tugging on the strings as he plunked the keys, often banging on them like an unhinged drummer. 

At one point, after “Movement 1,” he paused to address the audience. He began by saying, “usually the soloist talking between movements is a sign of a meltdown.” He went on to explain his brief history with UM and how after dropping out due to poor grades he tossed his drum kit into Lake Osceola. It was a funny bit of nostalgia that resurfaced in the best way possible later that evening.

While his “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra” was fantastic, Folds didn't unveil his true brilliance until after its conclusion. During a quiet moment, someone yelled “Rock this bitch!” It was Folds' cue to do what he does better than nearly anyone: improv. For those unfamiliar, whenever a fan shouts “rock this bitch” at a Ben Folds concert, he obliges by creating an entirely new song on the spot. With the HMI orchestra at his disposal, Folds played with every toy in the box for an absolutely incredible closing piece that he crafted on-the-fly.

Assigning each section, from cellos to violins and beyond, Folds' mind worked at a manic pace as he provided notes on his piano, handing out parts to the rest of the orchestra. He even beckoned over Flavin, who was seated in the wings, noting, “you should conduct this.”

“Anyone I didn't talk to, just make some shit up; build the beat slow, like Lil Wayne,” he told them. 

Folds then proceeded to compose a dynamic and hilarious classical symphony centered around getting his ass kicked at UM by a wrestler and then getting booted from said school. By show's end, the dean of music jokingly awarded Folds his scholarship again and everyone in attendance was rewarded with a performance by a swear-happy genius at the height of his prowess.


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