Bittersweet Symphonies As U.S. symphony orchestras struggle for financial survival, Ben Folds and other curious collaborations ensue.

Ben Folds performing with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in February 2017. Image provided by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Many symphony orchestras across the nation have been struggling financially, due in part to costly infrastructure, large personnel, and waning audience enthusiasm. The economic downturn of 2008 was a particularly straining period in American classical music history; a New York Times article published in 2011 revealed that the Philadelphia Orchestra had recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, the Honolulu and Syracuse Symphony Orchestras had folded, and the Detroit Symphony musicians had recently had their pay cut. Desperate to not only survive but thrive, many symphonies have focused on building their audience-base, and in particular, have sought ways to increase the number of younger patrons attending symphony performances.

To do so, many have programmed film and video game concerts, in which the orchestra plays film or video game scores while videos are projected on stage with the orchestra. Pops concerts have long been a staple, and now feature the music of Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Johnny Cash, Ella Fitzgerald, Queen, Frank Sinatra, Prince, and Michael Jackson, to name a few. Many orchestras have also begun programming pop, rock, and hip hop headliners, accompanied by the orchestra: Nas, Sir Mix-A-Lot, and Kendrick Lamar have all recently performed with various orchestras. The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) is no exception, and this year, their “Live at Powell Hall” series included both St. Louis-born rapper Nelly and pop/rock musician Ben Folds (Folds has performed at Powell Hall twice before, in 2011 and 2014).[1]

Some critics worry that in focusing on popularity, orchestras are losing the “reverential aura” that surrounds the concert hall, orchestra, and its music. In a New Republic article, Philip Kennicott compares the emphasis many orchestras are now placing on popular concerts to the mid-20th century Vatican II reforms in the Catholic church, explaining that orchestras now believe that, “Conductors should turn away from the altar and face the congregants, speak in the vernacular, and forego white-tie-and-tails vestments. The service should be consumer-friendly.” For Kennicott, orchestras that fail to value “serious” listeners by programming interesting musical works that can require a “lifetime” of effort to achieve its “intellectual” rewards not only offend their “traditional” audience, but fail to attract new audiences.

Concerts such as those by Ben Folds with the SLSO highlight how symphony halls can become sites of inter-generational, racial, and class mediation, even as the music, the many unnamed concert hall traditions, and the often grandiose features of the concert hall itself each work together to create the “reverential aura” … 

For the SLSO, however, non-classical collaborations, pop concerts, and movie score performances seem to have paid off: after eight years of emphasizing audience development under president and executive director Fred Bronstein, and now Marie-Hélène Bernard, 2016 was the first year this century in which the institution has had a balanced cash operating budget, boosted by growths in philanthropic support, attendance, and ticket sales.

While Kennicott is no doubt overanxious in his concerns for audiences of European classical music, concerts such as those by Ben Folds with the SLSO highlight how symphony halls can become sites of inter-generational, racial, and class mediation, even as the music, the many unnamed concert hall traditions, and the often grandiose features of the concert hall itself each work together to create the “reverential aura” Kennicott describes. This essay focuses on Folds and the SLSO, asking what happens when pop/rock groups find a place in symphony halls. Whose aesthetics and musical values yield, and what shifts are made to survive in the twenty-first century?

 

Defining the “Aura” of the Concert Hall

In his 1996 book, Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music, musicologist and rock critic Simon Frith outlines the differences between concert hall audiences and rock concert audiences:

 

“A good classical performance is therefore measured by the stillness it commands, by the intensity of the audience’s mental concentration, by the lack of any physical distraction, any coughs or shuffles…A good rock concert, by contrast, is measured by the audience’s physical response, by how quickly people get out of their seats, onto the dance floor, by how loudly they shout and scream.”[2]

 

Indeed, the very set-up of concert halls encourages stillness: audiences are seated, cough drops are doled out, lights remain steady and focused solely on the stage, and those members of the audience wishing to challenge the unspoken rules of decorum by talking, doing anything on a cell phone, or, the “worst” of all offenses, clapping after a movement of a multi-movement piece, can be sure to be fixed with withering stares by those around them. Rock concerts, on the other hand, often feature roving, multi-colored lights, welcome movement among the crowd, and usually encourage their audiences to drink and eat. Take Huffington Post blogger Richard Dare, for example, who chafes at the unspoken rituals. Dare wrote about an experience he had at an unnamed concert hall:

 

“There are a great many ‘clap here, not there’ cloak-and-dagger protocols to abide by. I found myself a bit preoccupied—as I believe are many classical concert goers—by the imposing restrictions of ritual behavior on offer: all the shushing and silence and stony faced non-expression of the audience around me, presumably enraptured, certainly deferential, possibly catatonic.”

 

Historian Eric Barry offers an explanation of the “aura” of western concert music that may provide insight into the confusion Dare felt in his trip to the concert hall. Using Water Benjamin’s understanding of the “work of art” (in the context of cinema and photography), Barry explains that the “aura” of “art” is created by its “singularity, its provenance, and the social ritual that surrounds it.”[3] He goes on to write that in translating aura to music, aura includes “its ephemerality, its cultural authority, the social and physical distance between audience and orchestra, and the symbolism and sound of the concert hall as a ‘cathedral’ of sound.”[4] In other words, the “aura” of the concert hall stems from a combination of the music, the unwritten rituals governing the audience and musicians’ bodies, and the physical space of the concert hall. In part, the “cultural authority” of the concert hall stems from the music performed in it; music composed by European “masters” of music, usually over one hundred years ago, and performed faithfully according to the written score by incredibly well-trained musicians specializing in the classical music genre. Most symphonies privilege the written score over improvisation, suggesting an implicit hierarchy in which written music is awarded a higher value than genres relying on unwritten and improvised traditions.

What happens when different musical genres and their associated connotations—as represented in musicians, styles of music, and surroundings—collide? In what follows, I consider how Ben Folds’s performances with the SLSO in 2014 and 2017 reflect the issues regarding concert halls and cultural value discussed by Barry. In particular, I focus on the friction between Folds’s typical rock aesthetic and the aura of the concert hall as demonstrated in Folds’s approach to his piano concerto and his inclusion of improvisation with the symphony.

 

Ben Folds with the Symphony

Folds is no stranger to the potential class conflict between his rock audiences and symphony audiences; this is perhaps most obvious in his explanations of his piano concerto. In 2014, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra commissioned Folds to write a piano concerto, which is now an integral part of Folds’s symphony tours. Folds explains that his approach to writing the concerto included flipping the traditional script for concert hall expectations regarding class. In an interview with comedian Pete Holmes, Folds explained how class was a crucial element to his story: “To me, there’s overtones in it of class issues. Rock-and-roll musician’s working class, he’s low class, and is invited to a fancy party and is dressing up for it. He gets some of it right and gets some of it wrong.” To anyone who has been to a symphony orchestra concert and not understood the dress code or rules for clapping and speech, Folds’s story may seem familiar (recall Dare’s assessment above).[5]

Though Folds appears to critique the notion that classical music is “higher class” than the rock music he usually performs, Folds at times relies on the cultural authority of classical music. In his 2017 performance, Folds made an extended plea to audience members who do not typically frequent the symphony to return to Powell Hall.[6] In doing so, he explained that the “symphony orchestra is the highest symbol of civilization,” joking that if the audience members were “a fan of civilization,” they needed to support the arts. He concluded, “If you like my music, their’s [the orchestra’s] is probably even better.” While Folds relied on narratives that place classical music above popular music, he did so with a clear goal in mind: to raise funds, awareness, and interest in the arts and music, and the symphony in particular.

… at Folds’s February 19 performance with the SLSO, two or three male audience members yelled out “Rock This Bitch!” Folds replied that he would perform the song, but first spoke directly to audience members who may be unfamiliar with his music. He said he wanted to explain to the subscription members in the audience who “took a chance on his concert” that even though the shouts sounded disrespectful, those “hecklers” were part of a fifteen year history of Folds performances.

Perhaps the biggest conflict between Folds and the symphony comes in Folds’s improvisations, elements of Folds’s concerts that have long been a staple to his fans. In a 2001 concert, a fan shouted “Rock this bitch!” at Folds and his band; Folds responded by turning the phrase into an improvised song. Folds now performs a version of “Rock This Bitch” at most of his concerts (often by request of the audience), and each time, he performs it differently (and with a different title). Even when accompanied by orchestra, Folds performs “Rock This Bitch,” giving sections of the orchestra cues and prompts, and improvising lyrics on top. Yes, Folds’s audience is quieter and is seated in a concert hall; but they remain vocal supporters of Folds, and their bodies and voices are actively involved in his musical performances, both at his request and at will.

“Rock This Bitch” is novel every time Folds performs it, and it is a popular addition to every performance. For example, at Folds’s February 19 performance with the SLSO, two or three male audience members yelled out “Rock This Bitch!” Folds replied that he would perform the song, but first spoke directly to audience members who may be unfamiliar with his music. He said he wanted to explain to the subscription members in the audience who “took a chance on his concert” that even though the shouts sounded disrespectful, those “hecklers” were part of a fifteen year history of Folds performances. Folds then went about his usual process of requesting song title ideas from the audience (the winner was “Last Night in Sweden,” referring to comments made the previous day by President Donald Trump), and directing various members of the orchestra to perform particular rhythms, chords, and embellishments, to accompany his improvised lyrics.

To the audience, “Rock This Bitch” seems particularly novel in the context of the concert hall, in part because the song (and its title) challenges traditional musical norms and values; the live-composition process is exciting and, like the swearing in the title, not typical to the surroundings of the concert hall.[7] As each section figures out its part in a matter of seconds, despite Folds’s often vague instructions, the audience applauds—amazed by the talent of the musicians and the improvisatory skill of Folds.

However, Folds’s April 13, 2014 performance with the SLSO revealed the friction between Folds’s improvisatory approach and the orchestra’s traditional adherence to the score. (A recording of the April 14, 2014 performance at Powell Hall is available on YouTube.) As usual, he outlined notes for the harp, members of the string sections, and saxophones—in this instance, he outlined chords and allowed members of the sections to perform any note of a simple chord progression. This chord progression repeated constantly as Folds improvised lyrics. The conductor, Steve Jarvi, followed Folds’s lead, providing a steady tempo and offering visual cues to Folds’s verbal directions to bring various sections in and out of the piece. However, when it came to Folds’s instruction to the lead trumpet player to play some kind of mariachi solo, the trumpeter never complied. Folds coaxed her several times, but eventually moved on to a different section, and the improvisation was left without a mariachi-style trumpet solo.

It is impossible to know for sure why the trumpeter did not engage in Folds’s improvisation: perhaps she was uncomfortable with being singled out (most musicians were asked to improvise in sections, not as soloists), or perhaps Folds’s instructions to her were less specific than to other musicians (he did not give her specific notes or chords). It is just as likely that the trumpeter, a highly trained classical music performer, was unprepared to improvise in a “mariachi” style. In any case, this moment represented a clash between Folds’s expectations and the expectations of some of his orchestral musicians, in which Folds misread the ability and/or willingness of some performers to improvise on stage without preparation. While Folds’s request of the trumpeter to improvise challenged norms associated with concert halls and western classical music, the trumpeter’s refusal likewise challenged norms, in which musicians must follow the direction of a conductor—or composer. Ultimately Folds’s musical values prevailed overall—he was able to perform an improvised piece that delighted his audience; however, the trumpeter’s assertion that she would not improvise provided a challenge to Folds’s musical aesthetic.

 

Compromising On Aesthetic Differences

As Folds’s concerts show, symphony halls can easily relax its dress code, cell phone policy (pictures and videos are still forbidden), and noise restrictions. It can fairly easily allow drinks and snacks into the hall itself (as it does for Folds). It can program collaborations between the symphony and popular performers and/or improvising musicians, create groups for young adults, offer discounts on tickets for those of a certain age, and it can even succeed in getting younger and more diverse audiences inside its doors. However, some elements of the “aura” of the symphony hall cannot be so easily changed: symphonies cannot easily change the training of its musicians, which for many is based on a conservatory model that emphasizes fidelity to the musical score, and leaves improvisation to the jazz department. Symphonies also cannot easily change the physical space of the concert hall (including the separation between musicians and audience, the overall look of wealth in concert halls featuring velvet-covered seats, marble floors, and chandeliers).

At a time in which symphonies are frequently shifting strategies to deal with financial difficulties, the clash between what the symphony can and cannot change (or what it is willing and unwilling to change), and what its invited musicians and new audiences are open to, will shift with each performance. In comparing Folds’s 2014 and 2017 concerts, it is clear that both Folds and the orchestra are grappling with these issues.

At a time in which symphonies are frequently shifting strategies to deal with financial difficulties, the clash between what the symphony can and cannot change (or what it is willing and unwilling to change), and what its invited musicians and new audiences are open to, will shift with each performance. In comparing Folds’s 2014 and 2017 concerts, it is clear that both Folds and the orchestra are grappling with these issues. In 2014, the ensemble featured a group of singers, and Folds’s vocal and piano microphones were turned up. In 2017, there were no singers, and both of Folds’s microphones were turned down; this resulted in a more blended sound between Folds and the orchestra. There were changes to the orchestrations between the 2014 and 2017 concerts that resulted in greater complexity and detail in the use of orchestral colors. Also, in 2014, Folds frequently stood at the piano in what I think of as his “power piano stance”: standing, legs spread wide, sometimes straddling the piano bench (the added height seems to give Folds some added leverage to pound at the piano). In 2017, Folds sat at the piano for nearly the entire concert, in a posture more closely associated with classical pianists.

However, Folds did not just make changes that aligned his aesthetics more closely with the concert hall; in his 2017 performance of his aforementioned piano concerto, Folds broke with the symphonic tradition that sees a multi-movement work as inseparable from its parts. Folds split the concerto’s movements into separate performances: he played the second movement (which he characterized as the “power ballad of a piano concert”) in the first half of the concert, the third movement in the second half, and omitted the first movement entirely. Doing so not only omitted questions of where the audience was supposed to applaud, but also turned the movements of the concerto into songs that, like the orchestrated versions of the other popular originals he played all night, served the pacing of the concert as a whole. In other words, Folds negotiated the expectations of his rock audience while conforming (somewhat) to the image and sound of a classical musician. In seven years of performing with symphony orchestras around the world, Folds has learned a key lesson in selling the symphony: absolute, immutable understandings of musical value are no longer feasible for symphonies that want to survive in the 21st century.

[1] Concert programmers and musicians alike understand the potential draw Folds offers to new audiences; SLSO oboist (and Folds fan) Phil Ross explains to the River Front Times, “It’s a different crowd than what would come to the classical stuff. What we want to do is excite them into saying, ‘Hey, this is really pretty cool.’”

[2] Simon Frith, “Rhythm: Race, Sex, and the Body,” in Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996).

[3] Eric D. Barry, “High-Fidelity Sound as Spectacle and Sublime, 1950-1961,” in Sound in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, ed. David Suisman and Susan Strasser (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), 118.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Importantly, president and CEO of the SLSO Fred Bronstein argued in an article on Folds’s 2014 SLSO concert that the symphony “is reaching new audiences and dispelling the notion that music featuring oboes and harps is only for people of a certain age or economic class.”

[6] For example, Folds extolled the achievements of the SLSO, listed composers that are frequently programmed at the symphony and encouraged the audience to listen to music at home to decide what composers they would like to hear, and mentioned the importance of subscription packages.

[7] Many Folds concerts feature prominent cursing, both during the songs and in between. However, Folds curses very occasionally when performing with the symphony. That is not to say that there is no cursing during the concert—as music blogger Brian Benton notes regarding Folds’s 2014 SLSO performance, “For songs when Folds typically curses, he would leave a blank and let the audience fill in the missing word.” Folds’s understanding that his concert hall performance necessitates less cursing is obvious in Benton’s next observation: “After “Middle Class and White,” for example, he made sure to clarify that he didn’t actually swear. ‘It was them [the audience]! I respect this establishment,’ he joked.” In his February 19, 2017 concert with the SLSO, Folds performed the song “You Don’t Know Me,” and changed the lyric “Why the fuck would you want me back?” to “Why the heck would you want me back?” Folds made a clear effort not to swear during his songs, though in between he seemed less concerned.