“Rock this bitch!”
Those three words, hurtling out of the darkness, momentarily put the bespectacled, bearded Ben Folds back on his heels.
The 52-year-old singer-songwriter was standing on stage, inside a sold-out Bass Performance Hall, with the 60-member Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra arrayed behind him.
As conductor Edwin Outwater looked on, it rapidly became apparent to Folds he would need to provide some context: “Some people don’t know why he said that,” he acknowledged, launching into a pocket history of the “Rock This Bitch” phenomenon.
“Let me explain this to the orchestra,” he continued. “They need to understand why this is happening.”
After everyone was up to speed, Folds seated himself at the sprawling Steinway situated in the center of the Bass Hall stage, and proceeded to assign parts to the various corners of the orchestra: cellos, trumpets, tympani and bassoons — everyone pitched in, seemingly stitching together what Folds characterized as an “Eastern European” riff upon the staple of his live shows.
Roughly 10 minutes after the cry rang out, Folds, with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, was performing a song which had not existed when the night began, singing “Rock this bitch in Fort Worth, Texas / Rock this bitch at Bass Hall / If you can’t rock this bitch in Texas / You can’t rock at all.”
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It was an absurd, triumphant moment — the collaboration on such a ribald tune certainly had to be a first in the annals of the Symphony Orchestra’s existence — and one which crystallized the peculiar alchemy at work Saturday night in Fort Worth.
The restlessly creative Folds has long performed with orchestras across the country, infusing his own sophisticated pop catalog with heft and texture (Saturday’s appearance in Fort Worth was his first in the city in over three years, following a 2015 gig with the FWSO).
While Folds is undoubtedly the focal point of the proceedings, with an orchestra at his disposal, the impulse might be to let the players carry the evening, providing tasteful accompaniment and generally staying out of the way. It was clear early on in the roughly 90-minute set (which was cleaved by a 30-minute intermission) Folds was going to be every bit as engaged as he would if he were the only person onstage.
Working through material fresh (“Effington” and “So There” and “Capable of Anything” from 2015’s So There) and familiar (“Steven’s Last Night in Town,” “Not the Same” and the indelible “Brick”), Folds also wove in evidence of his enduring fascination with classical composition, trotting out “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Movement 3,” the final track from So There. (“If you write your own concerto anytime soon,” Folds told the audience, “the third movement is the fun one.”)
Folds also made time for an impassioned plea for the value of performing arts organizations like the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.
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“I never take it for granted when I get to play with symphony orchestras,” he said. “As a symbol for civilization, it’s a pretty good one: It’s a lot of people working together for something greater than the self. … But when you see the symbol erode is to be concerned. I beg you to come back, and hear what the symphony does in its natural environment. It’ll blow your tiny minds.”
Saturday night was plenty mind-blowing in its own right, and the capacity crowd was only too happy to illustrate how it felt about the pairing.
Whether singing along at full volume — the spontaneous duet resulting when the audience sang Regina Spektor’s parts during “You Don’t Know Me” brought a grin to Folds’ face and mine alike — or doling out standing ovations, the concert itself was a pretty good symbol of civilization.
A group of strangers fulsomely appreciating, in unison, the art being made before them, understanding that such nights — and the songs which can manifest from nothing more than three words shouted into the shadows — are so rare as to border upon magical.