In May, pop musician Ben Folds was appointed the first-ever artistic adviser to the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. While some might balk at the idea of a man who rose to fame in the ’90s by pounding on a piano and singing “Give me my money back, you b****!” being responsible for classical programming at the Kennedy Center, Folds assures he doesn’t want to dumb it down. “I would urge classical audiences and purveyors of fine dead German music to not be afraid of any changes,” he says. “Orchestras can learn a lot from pop musicians, and pop musicians can learn a lot from orchestras. I don’t think that means we put a rock beat through Ravel and put up a disco ball. It won’t happen that way. We come in peace.”
How did this job come about?
It’s been brewing for a while. I’ve been playing with symphony orchestras doing pops shows for easily the last 15 years of my career. There are so many cultural divides these days, and one of the needless ones—truly needless ones—is that between popular music and symphonic music.
And you’re hoping to break down that divide?
I’d like to see the National Symphony Orchestra be a laboratory and a playground for artists—and also be a creative outlet for the orchestra itself, so they’re collaborating. The first order of business is combining seriously talented pop artists or modern artists with the symphony orchestra [for the NSO’s “Declassified” series]. And that’s a collaboration, not the symphony hired to play whole notes behind a rock band.
Before you even started in this role, you were facing backlash from outlets like The Washington Post, which questioned your ability to program concerts.
Like Bob Dylan said, if you can’t lend a hand, get out of the road. I understand the defense of the excellence of symphony orchestra, but when the Washington Post writer—I know her, she’s nice—when she says that, she’s making broad assumptions about what I’m doing and what people like me threaten. I don’t want to dumb a note down.
Despite your bona fides, are you still intimidated by classical music people?
There’s a tendency to feel that way. But I don’t believe, intellectually, that there’s actually a difference between an excellent musician and an excellent musician. And understand that I was playing with symphony orchestras since I was 7 years old. I got a full scholarship to school based on an orchestral audition as a percussionist. But I don’t have to be an expert at classical music any more than they have to be an expert on pop music or jazz. There’s a perceived pecking order, but then we go down the road and go, Whoa, Ray Charles! I know he’s not Ravel, but then Ravel isn’t Ray Charles. Who’s better? I’m not going to say. And I don’t think Maurice Ravel would say either. Ray Charles may have thought he was better. I don’t know.
Which piece of classical music first spoke to you?
When I was really young, it was just the stuff I got to be bombastic on. I got to play the bass drum imitating the cannons on the 1812 Overture, or the timpani on Dvořák’s New World Symphony. Rossini has a piece called La Gazza Ladra that I liked because it has a snare drum solo. It was like pirouettes or something—I got to do that and show off.
After making nine pop albums, in 2014 you wrote a piano concerto. What led to that?
I don’t believe, intellectually, that there’s actually a difference between an excellent musician and an excellent musician.
I’ve always been so rooted in melody, and words are always the last thing that happen in my songs, so a lot of people who see me go through the process wish I would stop sometimes before the words covered it up [laughs]. When I got a commission to do a piano concerto from the Nashville Symphony, I immediately said, “Yes, yes, I’ll do it.” It was a pretty steep learn, but I think it’s a really pretty good piece of music. I do.
Your story songs soundtracked my high school career, so I can’t help but ask: Why haven’t you written a musical yet?
I know … I’ve resisted it for almost 25 years now. Started down the path a couple times. The funny thing is, one of the first famous guys I ever met when we started was Pete Townshend of The Who. We were playing some television show before our first record was even out, and Pete walked straight across the room, and he goes, “Have you written a musical?” And I said no. And he said, “You need to write a musical right now. I am insisting that you fly to New York and see a new musical called Rent and tell me what you think.” And what he was saying was, Do it now because you’ll be ahead of the curve and you’ll be doing it while you’re still in the youthful part of your rock and roll career. Well … I wish I had followed Uncle Pete’s advice.