Pop pianist Ben Folds turned mock conductor Saturday at the Greek Theatre, "leading" the New York-based orchestral sextet yMusic in a set of piano-driven chamber pop while entertaining the audience with his Gustavo Dudamel-esque moves.
But joking aside, the former alternative pop star used the evening to introduce a crowd weaned on his '90s band Ben Folds Five to new material from his upcoming solo album, “So There.”
Complete with sweeping melodies, Folds showcased his catchy pop tunes with twists of melancholic witticisms, while yMusic performed its staccato-driven pop with classical wind, string and brass instruments.
Most impressive of yMusic was the group’s multifaceted supplements to Folds’ compositions, with three of the musicians balancing two instruments per track. Flutist Alex Sopp provided back-up vocals on tracks with a piccolo on her lap.
Tracks from Ben Folds’ popular repertoire, including “Effington” off his 2008 solo album “Way to Normal,” afforded yMusic an opportunity to exhibit its talents by taking the lead melody. But new songs off “So There” dominated the concert and signaled that Folds and yMusic are a worthy pairing.
“Phone in a Pool” (a song with a Kesha-inspired backstory), proved the strongest of the seven new tunes of the night, as each member of yMusic provided a necessary element to the typical Folds song about intoxicated desperation. With yMusic at the forefront of the track, the ensemble’s string plucking and piccolo trills complemented Folds’ melancholic lyrics.
When Folds did retreat back into his catalog of solo work and that of Ben Folds Five, yMusic didn’t recede into the background. Songs such as “Mess,” “Not the Same” and the improvised “Rock This ...” pleased a crowd looking for Folds’ more recognizable tunes. The addition of yMusic compounded the new material with imaginative orchestral harmonies.
Even when it seemed Folds ran out of ideas, he turned to "conducting" the audience, getting them to chant his nicknames for each of the musicians. His niche music-theory humor appeased the crowd.
For his encore, Folds looked back once more at the 2008 “Way to Normal” record, bringing pop mainstay Regina Spektor (she's behind the "Orange Is the New Black" title song) onstage for a surprise rendition of “You Don’t Know Me.”
Folds' risky move – relying on the strength of his upcoming album over established tunes – paid off. It also showed that his 20-year career may be hitting a crescendo yet again, thanks to the reinvigorating instrumentals of yMusic.