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A thoroughly modern Mozart, Ben Folds orchestrates a party with the KC Symphony

Ben Folds performed with the Kansas City Symphony on Saturday night in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
Ben Folds performed with the Kansas City Symphony on Saturday night in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Special to the Star

Ben Folds compared himself with Mozart Saturday night at Helzberg Hall.

Although the reference was intended as a joke — Folds said that “Mozart also had a filthy mouth” — there was some truth to his offhand observation. A capacity audience of 1,600 saw Folds display flashes of genius during his audaciously inventive collaboration with the Kansas City Symphony.

Unlike some of the artists from the pop sphere who occasionally perform with classical ensembles, Folds isn’t a dilettante merely seeking sweetening from a string section in an attempt to entice an aging fan base.

As the piano-pounding leader of the eggheaded indie-rock band Ben Folds Five, Folds resembled an excitable version of the “Peanuts” character Schroeder as his band gained prominence in the 1990s with unusually baroque hits like “Battle of Who Could Care Less.”

After lauding the Symphony as “one of the best” orchestras he’s heard, the North Carolina native suggested that classical ensembles are “the best artistic symbol of civilization.”

The musicians certainly sounded like an estimable bastion of culture in a reading of the second and third movements of Folds’ “Concerto For Piano and Orchestra.” The dramatic rendition of the work was every bit as satisfying as interpretations of Folds’ pop material.

The brass section emphasized the ebullient folly of “Effington” while percussionists and saxophonists received a workout during the madcap swing of “Steven’s Last Night in Town.” “Landed” was among the selections that seemed meant to be lavished with strings. Folds encouraged ticketholders in the choir seats to sing Regina Spektor’s part of the 2009 duet “You Don’t Know Me.” They eagerly complied, profanity and all.

The concert’s most remarkable segment was also the messiest. A fan exhorted Folds to spontaneously create a new song, a tradition at his concerts. While some members of the Symphony were clearly uncomfortable with the proposition, principal flautist Michael Gordon gamely provided an inviting melody.

Abetted by Assistant Conductor Jason Seber, Folds spent several minutes constructing an arrangement based on Gordon’s tune. He discarded one idea that was slow to develop and quickly elaborated on more promising tangents.

At the conclusion of the fanciful rehearsal, Folds improvised lyrics about “walking around downtown” Kansas City earlier in the day over the startlingly compelling new composition. The hastily devised piece may not qualify as timeless art, but the entertaining exercise in creativity would surely have impressed Mozart.

Bill Brownlee: @happyinbag

Set list

Effington; Mess; So There; Capable of Anything; You Don’’t Know Me; Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Movements 2 and 3; Zak and Sara; Landed; improvised piece; Picture Window; Steven’s Last Night in Town; Not the Same; Brick; One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces; The Luckiest; Theme From Dr. Pyser.

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