Ben Folds
Musician Ben Folds

Declassified, In Motion: Ben Folds at The Kennedy Center

The Kennedy Center has often bridged the gap between the classical and popular worlds before—most recently with Kendrick Lamar’s divine performance of To Pimp a Butterfly with the NSO Pops—but Declassified is not so much a bridge between two worlds as it is a portal to the classical one. The basic concept: The National Symphony Orchestra performs works of western art “classical” music, often newer pieces, and with a younger conductor and composers who draw from the pop world. The Kennedy Center debuted the program with Declassified: In Motion with Ben Folds, which was presented this past Friday. Despite some uneven performance, the NSO not only successfully initiated the series but undoubtedly initiated a few into the wider world of western art music.

In Motion referred to several musical ideas contained within the program: the motion of evolution of Western Art music, the new motions the NSO is moving in, and that the underlying musical ideas uniting most of the program were dance rhythms. Scholars have often suggested that most musical forms start as dance, communal celebration music before morphing into “sit and listen” mentalities, but dance music and rhythms remain a welcoming point of accessibility for most musical forms.

It was then fitting for the NSO to develop the inaugural Declassified program around dance based music; not only that, but all the pieces performed are by American composers and come from the 20th and 21th centuries. Performing John Adams’ “The Chairmen Dances”—a piece he more famously developed in his opera Nixon in China—brought spryness and dexterity to the tightly composed and arranged piece, leaving the stereotypes of syrupy, overly romanticized interpretation behind. In a video that preceded the “Dances,” guest composer Sarah Hicks appealed to Adams’ appreciation and adaptation of jazz, pop, rock, folk and minimalism in composing the contemporary, seventies opera—once again invited the audience into the world of classical, but closer to the crowd’s popular music sensibilities.

The NSO treated Paul Creston’s “Dance Overtures” with similar touches, attempting to emphasis the dance rhythms that determine the piece’s main rhythms and beats. A theme and variation that also variates between four dances—a Spanish bolero, an English folk, a French loure and an American square dance—the orchestra’s sonorities were well suited to the English and French dances, bringing lovely idyll environment and pastoral punch created by amid section-treble contrast of the strings. A square dance performed in symphonic fashion was certainly a welcome departure from the repetition of European, aristocratic dance forms: there was a sense that these musicians embodied the square dance rhythmic patterns – just as they are ingrained into the cultural soul of the country. Kennedy Center composer-in-residence Mason Bates was then brought onstage to propel the performance of his piece Mothership, first commissioned and performed by the YouTube Symphony Orchestra (yes, it’s a thing). Bates’ main inspirations for the piece came from swing jazz and techno, emphasizing and contrasting two distinct and diverging American dance styles. Might DC’s own Duke Ellington have done the same? Regardless, Bates’ piece distinctly encapsulated the themes of Declassified: The main theme, based around a minimalist, techno pattern, did not try to fit classical strings squarely into the crisp, electronically precise rhythm of techno or have techno’s beating pulse broadened to fit a symphonic mold. Bates (who will be headlining the next Declassified on April 15) is clearly considering, and more interested by, how elements of classical and electronic music blend and slur together to create a new fusion; that fusion certainly fueled interest amongst the crowd. Technology played a further roll in the program, with multi-media videos introducing each piece; dispelling the old model of classical music where one has to know pieces ahead of time to understand them.

Folds is known as both a complex lyricist and sophisticated rock song writer, but his sophistication and complexity truly shone on the Concert Hall Stage. In his introductory video, he remarked “There’s no bigger canvas than a three part concerto.” He took his paint brushes and ran with them, as his piece “a rock musician’s piano concerto,” rivaled the night’s earlier offerings for artistic ingenuity, merit and complexity. Folds also remarked that this kind of composing allows him to “describe story in a lyrical melodic fashion without lyrics,” which suits his poetic ambiguity and interpretations well. Particularly, the second part of the piece demonstrated the purpose of Declassified. As he played a lilting, searching staccato melody, Ben Folds demonstrated the kind of delicacy he does with a song like “Brick”: plucking each note gently from its ethereal perch in his mind. In addition to hints of blues, swing, ragtime, and Hollywood flairs in his harmonies, the poetry in his storytelling poured out of every melody. Like each note or each word, so carefully and consciously culled, in his pop songs, each note has its own reason and story for why it is there.

Looking around the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, as the crowds drunk in the Dances of Adams and Creston, were beamed up by Bates’ Mothership and felt the emotional punches of Folds compositions, one saw families, jeans, flannel, and souvenir sippy cups of drinks. One saw a crowd for a classical concert more reflective of the diversity that distinguishes live music crowds of today. A new crop of concert-goers engaged the world of classical music, and enjoyed it quite much. The Kennedy Center and the National Symphony Orchestra accomplished their goal, and successfully de-mystified and deconstructed a number of stereotypes and pretentions of the classical world. One can only hope that Declassified continues to direct new crowds to the concert hall.

To learn more about Mr. Folds visit his website, www.benfolds.com. For more on theDeclassified series, the NSO, and the Kennedy Center, visit www.kennedy-center.org. Check out Ben Folds TV on YouTube, follow him on Twitter @BenFolds and Facebook@BenFolds