Ben Folds with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra

– by Henry Whitehead

A Steinway concert grand graces central stage in the company of an eighty piece orchestra plus choir and 1700 mostly thirty-something fans, filling to capacity Perth Concert Hall. Black suit, black tie, white shirt, overtly geeky black rimmed prescriptions. Enter nineties rockstar turned solo pop rock pianist, singer/songwriter and collaborator Ben Folds.

The concert commenced. “If there is a god, he is laughing at us and our football team,” unlikely words sung by choir as intro to Ben Folds’ Effington. From where I sat at least, the audio mix on this first song seemed a tad indistinct, but any fear of sound mix disappeared by crowd pleasing second track Smoke, where the orchestra truly came in to its own.

Conducted by Nicholas Buc, it lent an epic, cinematic scale and finely crafted emotive layer that seems so right as part of the track which, like most of the others was never originally written with an orchestral accompaniment in mind. “How about my band tonight?” he proudly boasted. “WASO was the first symphony orchestra I worked with post being rock-guy” (back in 2005). Stating that before he was ‘rock-guy’, he played percussion as part of an orchestra as a youngster. It’s clearly in his blood.

His energetic creativity shone in an instrumental arrangement he wrote last year Piano Concerto – Movement 3 (piano and orchestra). Schizophrenic rock piano led to said piano being struck and plucked like a guitar, giving way to a lush and feverishly cinematic score. It’s a safe bet that the most entertaining and unique aspect of the show was an unscheduled and completely improvised orchestration – orchestra, piano and lyrics by Ben on the spot.

Now a Ben Folds/WASO tradition, the segment was prompted by an audience member shouting “rock this bitch!” once the applause for Cologne had dissipated. Ben then went on to explain what this implied, and asked management to swiftly print off the Wikipedia article on Perth city.

One song later, he had a printout of his ‘lyrics’. On the fly, he proceeded to compose and instruct, section by section, a full orchestral backing track to the song, complete with multiple mentions of Tim Minchin in his improvised lyrics. More than just a novelty (a world first with WASO back in 2005), the improv demonstrated the beauty of spontaneity, collaboration and the creative process amongst world class performers.

One speech that was planned obviously meant a lot to him as an arts advocate. His point was clear, proclaiming “there are two types of cities, those that have symphony orchestras and those that don’t. Those that don’t generally suck.” Agreed. It’s not about having enough money to make it work, it’s about having a public that deem the arts important enough to be part of civilisation.

This is where we are with arts in Australia – if we forget what enriches and brings society together and the importance of that, we end up with a divided community devoid of soul, positive creative collaboration and aesthetic legacy. It struck a definitive chord with the audience.

Following his speech he played Not The Same. Being the showman he is, Ben conducted the entire audience, using our collective voice to tie the song together. The power of creative collaboration. Case in point.

The musical avalanche wasn’t over, not even after the “surprise compulsory encore”. The crowd demanded one more song, and this time it was Ben Folds and piano without orchestra. The song Army, from Ben Folds Five days, I felt was a fitting end to a commendable performance, leaving the audience on an undeniable high.

Photo credit: Matthew Picken

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