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Ben Folds brings signature sounds to the Florida Orchestra

Ben Folds has had success on his own, as part of Ben Folds Five and now with the Ben Folds Experience.
Published Nov. 4, 2014

Wander for a moment back to high school. Picture that music teacher who knew everything about music, dropping terms like clave and sforzando without a blink. He could outplay anyone, but never had the edge to cut it as a rock star.

Ben Folds is that guy. The difference is, Folds did cut it as a rock star, and so much more. The bespectacled frontman of Ben Folds Five has now ventured into symphonic music, bringing his Ben Folds Experience to the Florida Orchestra on Friday. They'll team to perform his hits, plus an original concerto under the lead of conductor Jacomo Bairos.

For followers of Folds, it's not much of a stretch. His rock music has always been rich with detail, his band actually a trio of piano, bass and drums. He favors challenging, jazzy beats. His voice is thin but charming, buoyed by his arrangements.

If his pedigree needed any padding, Folds is also a board member at the Nashville Symphony, and an a cappella pro. He produced an album of university a cappella and has been a judge on NBC's The Sing-Off for several years.

So how will Folds fold his style into a proper orchestra? He's likely to bring out numbers including Effington, Jesusland and Rockin' the Suburbs. But here are a few extra-special moments to watch out for Friday in Tampa:

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra: Because an extensive pop catalog was not enough, Folds has composed a concerto about 20 minutes long, alternating between funky blues riffs and sweeping baroque sounds. It's discordant in some parts, melodic in others, full of flourishes and staggering staccato, yet also hauntingly sparse. Folds has said he doesn't like the word "showmanship," but it's hard to avoid when he stands up, reaches inside his piano and mutes the wires as he plays.

Brick: The 1997 ballad is Ben Folds Five's best-known song, a twist considering the band's penchant for upbeat tempos and impish humor. The song is an artful autobiographical poem ("She's a brick and I'm drowning slowly") about a young couple going through an abortion. Sliced with the orchestra's stringed instruments, it should bring out the goose bumps.

Rock This B----: This would be a big wildcard. The crowd favorite is Folds' famous improvisational number, inspired when a fan shouted at him from the crowd in 2002. He has played it with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, the Houston Symphony, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and more, guiding the musicians through the notes and inventing new lyrics on the spot. In Rochester, N.Y., he worked in "Canandaigua," the name of the city's performing arts center. Could we have a signature Straz song on our hands? Only Folds will tell.

Contact Stephanie Hayes at shayes@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716. Follow @stephhayes.

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