Ben Folds Musician’s latest work bridges classical, popular genres in groundbreaking ways

Ben Folds (center) with members of the classical ensemble yMusic, which collaborated with him on a classical-pop fusion record. (Provided/Allan Amato).

Symphony orchestras across the country have been trying to reel in younger audiences for decades, often with pops concerts boasting modern film score selections or well-known Broadway tunes.

In recent years, some of the largest orchestras in the country have taken it a step further by playing alongside indie rockers, including the Decemberists and My Morning Jacket, with quite a bit of success, according to The New York Times. It seems they add a needed edge to pops performances that the hip, 30-something crowd could latch onto.

So, pairing trendy rock musicians with orchestras is nothing new. It’s not even new for Ben Folds, who has headlined shows with a few different symphony orchestras in the past decade.

But the singer-songwriter’s latest project is perhaps a more meaningful fusion of the two genres.

Rather than cast his rock tunes on a classical backdrop for a few rare performances, Folds has taken his ideas to the classical world to compose original pieces of orchestral music. In September, he introduced “So There,” a mostly collaborative album written with New York City-based chamber ensemble, yMusic. It also includes a 20-minute piano concerto recorded with the Nashville Symphony. He’ll be at the Charleston Music Hall on Monday with yMusic during their nationwide tour showcasing the new work.

In the process, they’re also showing modern audiences what it means to bridge the gap between classical and popular music in a way that fortifies both traditions. So far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive from critics and fans. The album has remained in the top five spots on Billboard’s list of classical albums since it was released six weeks ago.

“What I’m finding is, people want so badly to hear ... both of those worlds together,” Folds said. “The interest in this album has been far more than I can remember in the longest time. Maybe since ever. It has really sparked something with people and I think that says a lot about people’s curiosity and intellectual passion.”

It all started with the concerto.

Folds was co-commissioned in 2013 by the Nashville Ballet and the Minnesota Orchestra to compose the concerto, which took him most of the year to accomplish. The critically acclaimed, four-movement “Concerto For Piano and Orchestra,” made its debut in March 2014 with the Nashville Symphony, and for the rest of the year, Folds traveled to perform it with some of the best symphony orchestras in the world.

For Folds’ fans and critics alike, this was yet another sign of his genius. The musician who emerged in the mid-’90s with his rock group Ben Folds Five had penned many hits, including “Brick” and “Army,” but his seemingly unquenchable thirst for challenges has proven his virtuosic skills as a composer, producer and multi-instrumentalist.

His first solo album in 2001, “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” featured him on almost every instrument. Since then, he’s composed music for film and TV, released an entirely a capella record and collaborated with artists from Sara Bareilles to William Shatner.

Still, the concerto shines as one of his most impressive achievements. But Folds downplays it.

“I always do what just happens,” he said. “Someone offered me a commission over wine at a dinner to create the concerto and I was drunk and I said yes. And then I had to do it.”

Folds is classically trained, but not on piano, his main instrument. Growing up, he played in youth orchestras as a percussionist and later studied orchestral percussion at the University of Miami with an emphasis in jazz.

Piano eventually overshadowed other instruments because he used it as a tool to write music, and soon it became the signature of his sound. But Folds explains that didn’t exactly mean composing a piano concerto was a breeze.

“When I composed a concerto, I could write it out, I could tell you what it was and I could play it very slowly in little bits and pieces, but I couldn’t perform it,” he said. “So, I had to take on all of the practice skills I had learned — music conservatory style — when I was a kid, and figure this out on the piano. I was practicing six hours a day and icing my forearms.”

After playing the concerto for about a year, Folds decided he wanted to release it as an album. But at 21 minutes, it was too long for a single and too short for a full-length. He had one choice: figure out how to work it into a complete, cohesive record.

“That’s odd territory, you know. I was a little skeptical about the idea of making a complete classical album. I didn’t have classical pieces in my back pocket. It seemed very touristy to me,” Folds said. “So I decided to take the songs I was writing anyway naturally ... and do it with a classical chamber ensemble instead.”

That’s when yMusic came into the picture, through a mutual connection between Folds and the ensemble’s trumpet player, CJ Camerieri.

The group, with a proven, highly regarded track record for blending the lines between pop and classical traditions, was the ideal choice for the project, Folds said. yMusic has performed with high-profile artists such as Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver. The ensemble has been called “one of the groups that has really helped to shape the future of classical music,” by NPR.

Folds agreed.

“Without getting too deep into where I think orchestral and classical music is going, I’ll say that I think that yMusic is a glimpse of the future,” he said.

As far as the creative process in the studio, he called them “dream collaborators.”

The whole album was finished in three sessions that included all the writing, scoring and rehearsing. He attributes that to their fusion style, meaning classically trained musicians that have a rock band’s mentality.

“The rock group’s work ethic is always a lot greater than a classical musician. ... You practice all day long, partially because also, rock musicians don’t know how to practice. We just start playing it over and over, we don’t have any system for this. Classical musicians have to be very efficient. It’s all scripted. It’s all on paper. The dynamics are set,” he said. “So with this group, they have that “let’s play all day” thing, but as a classical group, they have the classical efficiency, so they’re really pretty incredible in that way.”

Their unique instrumentation of a strings trio, flute, clarinet and trumpet add to the complex arrangements on “So There,” but the absence of a bass instrument also made it somewhat complicated.

“The people who can reach the lowest notes ... they’re taking bass line duty each. And that means that you can’t just jump all over the place and do what you want to,” Folds said. “In order to score around that, you have to be very specific.”

That’s just one of the challenges that come with combining rock and classical traditions, especially when it comes to touring.

“Just piecing together the touring on this, I mean you could have made a reality show about it,” Folds said, laughing.

He explained that all the members of the ensemble have their own individual music careers and obligations that require careful planning. Then, there’s the logistics of traveling with so much equipment.

“It is a little bit of a mess, but I think everyone is just rolling with it,” he said. “The reason people don’t innovate or do different things sometimes is simply because of the pain threshold. And that’s what I’ve found. As soon as I go, ‘Oh man, this is different, this is great’ then pretty soon, we all start to feel the pain because there’s something about it that’s not going to be easy.”

But Folds hopes other popular musicians will make those efforts, too.

“The world of classical music ... is hurting right now and it could use pop musicians. And pop musicians could use the classical world because it’s so full of possibility and sounds. It’s endless.”

Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail

Live your most local life with the help of our handpicked music, events and food stories. Delivered to your inbox every Thursday.