From the Ben Folds Five through solo projects and rubbing shoulders with William Shatner, Regina Spektor, and Weird Al Yankovic, pianist/composer Ben Folds likes to keep folks head-scratching. In concert with the San Diego Symphony, Folds plays his new three-movement piano concerto to Escondido’s California Center for the Arts on February 5 and Symphony Hall downtown on February 6. Between sniffling through a headcold and hinting at a future collaboration with Josh Groban, Folds took some questions from Los Angeles.
How do your three concerto movements differ?
"Capable of Anything"
...off of Ben Folds's So There record
“The first movement is the story of a pop musician composing a classical-style piece. If you think about Queen, or Elton John with ‘Funeral for a Friend,’ that’s what you get out of those as well. ‘Ah, this is rock guy doing classical gestures.’ I knew people were going to say, ‘It’s a rock guy playing a concerto, let’s see how bad this sucks.’ I think that’s a good story. It’s a little schizophrenic, which I like, but it does carry a few themes and develop them.
“The second movement is a ballad in many time signatures. It’s the most lasting piece of the three movements. The third movement is all-in. I’m playing idiosyncratic things on the piano that I know I can play but other pianists would have a hard time doing. A nutty little short ride.
“There’s an almost-cadenza where I mute the strings with my left hand, holding the sustain pedal and playing with my right hand. Gives it a sound almost like a pizzicato muted heavy-metal guitarist. There’s a lot of drumming on the piano-drumming notes, not playing with drumsticks. I was a percussion major in school.”
Which movement was the most challenging?
“I scrapped and rewrote the second one five times. That means shredding and starting again. The way it was developed, I was trying to get from one place to another, and it can be a forest. The first and third movements go where they damn well please.”
How did you manage orchestrations?
“I had a copyist on my arm the entire time. I would try to get 15 seconds in my head, a day. Then we’d input it into the computer. The guy working with me would say, ‘With all respect, you’ve just sent your clarinetist to the hospital. You need to let him breathe.’ ‘Oh, right. Sorry.’”