In May, singer-songwriter Ben Folds was named the new artistic adviser to the National Symphony Orchestra, coming in with a lot of ideas about how to approach programming and performing in the NSO’s late-night “Declassified” series. On Friday night — a little more than a week after a video of his improvised song composition with the NSO at the “Sound Health” concert in June got more than 125,000 views on YouTube — he showed that he knows what he’s talking about by offering one of the best “Declassified” programs yet.
When Folds last appeared on the “Declassified” program, in December 2015, it was a disaster, because it was so ill-conceived. Though the concert drew Folds’s fans, it stuck so firmly to established orchestral protocol that it kept Folds from actually addressing them or giving them any of the music they recognized as his, limiting him instead to his piano concerto, performed after two other undistinguished orchestral works. Folds evidently shared some of my reservations about that event, and vowed that if he appeared on the series again, it would be completely under his control.
The result was a program that had Folds’s fingerprints, and voice, and music, all over it. Folds, at this point in his career, has many years of pops-concert experience under his belt, and he set out to redress some of the problems with the genre — notably, the disconnect between a heavily amplified pop star and an acoustic orchestra.
Folds outlined some of his ideas to me in an informal meeting the day before the show. But plenty of artists with good ideas are tripped up in the attempt to execute them; and I’ve been pretty vocal about my doubts that making artists into administrators, or programmers, is automatically a good idea. Folds, however, delivered. He trimmed down the amplification so you could actually hear the orchestra, and balanced the program between pop artists and pieces written for orchestra, picking things that sounded reasonable on a pops program, like Henry Mancini’s “Strings on Fire,” conducted with notable fizz and energy by Jacomo Bairos, with the orchestra sounding like they were actually having fun.
He also brought to the evening the flair of a veteran performer, taking ownership of the proceedings and concluding with a set of his own work — “Bastard,” “Erase Me,” “Practical Amanda” (for which Nick Hornby wrote the lyrics) and the final movement of his piano concerto, reimagined in what he called a “Hooked on Classics, cheesy disco version.”
It wasn’t a perfect evening. Bairos proved good at short, lively things (like Ernesto Lecuona’s “Malagueña”) but out of his element in longer works, unable to sustain interest or energy in John Adams’s “Lollapalooza.” And the setting didn’t particularly showcase the abilities of the singer Blake Mills, whose “Half Asleep,” he said after the applause, “represented the first and hopefully the last time I’ve performed a song without a guitar. What do people do with their hands?” He also offered “Falling Out of Love” and “It’ll All Work Out.”
But overall, it was a far livelier and more compelling show than most of the previous “Declassified” efforts I’ve seen. The sensitive attention to arrangements and the stripped-down amplification — only four mics onstage for the orchestra, Folds told me, plus two for the performers — meant that you could actually hear the singers and the music (unlike the recent Thievery Corporation performance on the KC Jukebox series, which reduced everything to a thick soup of similar sound).
What really made the evening, though, was the Cuban singer Danay Suárez, a powerhouse of a musician who offers a kind of mash-up of rap and R&B, pouring out lyrics in a breathless stream of sound and thought. With her three songs, “Yo Aprendí,” “Lágrimas de Soledad” and “Wake Up,” she effectively stole a show that was decent to begin with, and came back onstage to adorn the piano concerto with some vocal cadenzas, adding fireworks to the finale.
After Folds’s last “Declassified” concert, I predicted his audience would never return to the Kennedy Center. But I’d bet that those who were in attendance at this one might come back to see what else he has up his sleeve — even though the orchestra, perhaps up against the limits of its contractually scheduled working hours, practically galloped offstage during the applause. If you’re going to offer this kind of thing, this is definitely a viable way to go about it.