Arts & Culture
2:35 pm
Fri June 13, 2014

LISTEN: Ben Folds Bridges Pop And Classical Music

Ben Folds performed and answered questions at a matinee performance on Wednesday, conducted by the Symphony's associate conductor Aram Demirjian.
Ben Folds performed and answered questions at a matinee performance on Wednesday, conducted by the Symphony's associate conductor Aram Demirjian.
Credit Beth Buchanan / Kansas City Symphony

Singer-songwriter Ben Folds had a strongly worded message for an audience at a sold-out Kansas City Symphony concert at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts this week: "Cities without symphony orchestras are crap."

Pop and classical music might, at first glance, seem like an unlikely pairing. But Folds, who lives in Nashville, Tenn., serves on the board of the Nashville Symphony, and since March, he's  toured with symphony orchestras. The Kansas City Symphony performances with Folds included some of his hits, as well as his three movement, 25-minute concerto for piano and orchestra.

According to principal trombonist Roger Oyster, Folds added at the Tuesday concert that people should make time for classical composers such as Mahler, Rachmaninoff and Beethoven because it's "serious" music, which he defined as "meaningful," "important," "and not to be done without."

"Classical music needs many things, but perhaps it needs great salesmanship most of all," wrote Oyster. "And if speeches like the one Ben Folds gave ... speeches that were both heartfelt and humorous, passionate and articulate, were given regularly to audiences as eager and receptive, our business would be better off."

The Symphony also performed the second and third movements of Folds' concerto during an afternoon event for students on Wednesday, followed by a question and answer session.

Q & A Highlights: Ben Folds

On trying new things

Playing rock music, I've found that there are some things that I wanted to get across with my music that I wasn't able to in a three and a half minute song form.

I think it's always good to try stuff that's scary for you. Almost everything that you have ahead of you, there's something scary about it. And I find that a good thing because once you do it, it's not scary any more. So, a year ago, I was scared to death about writing this piece (concerto), and now that I've done it, and it's good. It's something I had to do.

On getting started on the concerto

You start off with a blank page. You have to decide what you're going to write about. The scary thing about this for me is that someone gave me the money to do it and then gave me a deadline, like homework, by which I had to have it finished. So, I did what any good student would do and I put it off for a couple of months. And then, I started having ideas. I'd wake up with a thought or some idea.

On first playing the piano

I started playing piano when my father rolled one into the house at about 7:28 p.m. one day when I was 9 years old. He was a construction, a carpenter, and he was working on rebuilding a house and they couldn't afford to pay him all of his money, so they agreed to give him the piano that was in the house. So he rolled the piano in, and I was up all night laying in bed thinking about what I would play on it.

On keeping the experience fun

I was lucky that I followed my instinct when it came to piano playing. I had lessons and they were from a teenage girl who lived across the street, who'd played for about three years probably. And she taught me some good stuff, she told me to play scales...but when piano playing was no fun for me any more, when it was no practice and didn't seem like any fun, I did this (pounds on piano).

On improvising

First thing is don't be afraid of the notes. When you're improvising, it's just like talking. It really is. You have to know words in order to talk...when you learn phrases on the piano, or whatever instrument, those are words.