The National Symphony Orchestra/The Kennedy Center Declassified series, launched on Saturday with its performance of In Motion featuring Ben Folds, is a bold initiative to counter the fundamental challenge of contemporary symphonic music: the next generation, which is to say my generation of music lovers, can be intimidated by the grandeur and supposed loftiness of classical music. This anxiety is exacerbated by The Kennedy Center itself, which, with its marble facade and hundred foot ceilings, can seem rather inaccessible to your average millennial music lover.
The Declassified Series is off to a smashing start with In Motion featuring Ben Folds, an amalgam of classic and contemporary music and multimedia design. It is a shame that the Snapchat set won’t be treated to another offering like it until spring of next year. But at least now there is a working model for cultural programmers all over the country who want the young to try classical.
Declassified is far from an integrated concept piece. On the contrary, it is a mish mash of what The Kennedy Center already had on tap, and what they could coax from their appointed celebrity. For example, the show begins with two songs the NSO is already performing for their usual concerts on Thursday, December 3rd, and Saturday, December 5th: The Chairman Dances, a Foxtrot for Orchestra, by John Adams, and Dance Overture, by Paul Creston. The first is a quintessentially Washington piece, having been written by Adams in 1985 as a sort of prologue to his epic opera Nixon in China. Whereas The Chairman Dances has a sprightly and courtly energy, Dance Overture is more languid and melodic.
Both pieces are interesting in their own right, and this is the first time that the NSO has played either of them – but one could be forgiven for thinking that thus far, Declassified is simply an ordinary NSO show with a spruced up title. The only clue that we were in for something substantively different was the conductor, the mesmerizing Sarah Hicks. With her hot pink blouse and athletic wand technique, the Hawaiian wunderkind was in and of herself as interesting to watch as the 96 piece national symphony, which, it should be stated right off the bat, performed with their usual precision and virtuosity.
Although Sarah Hicks will also conduct for the NSO’s “traditional” performances that bookend Declassified, she seemed to fully embrace the novelty of the Friday evening performance. She cracked jokes with the audience and lightly poked fun at the Kennedy Center’s slightly ridiculous video promos for Declassified – that played, well, during Declassified, on forty foot screens… so she was able to achieve the Kennedy Center’s key objective: taking the starch out of symphonic music, while not compromising on the music itself.
The show was basically an uninterrupted hour and a half – in fact, there was a slightly confusing quasi-intermission before Ben Folds came on – but it was basically separated into three acts. The first, as mentioned, was dominated by Sarah Hicks and the two 20th century American symphonic works. The second was a fascinating performance of the latest opus by Kennedy Center Composer-in-Residence, Mason Bates. The piece, entitled Mothership, was a hypnotic concatenation of symphony and techno. As the lights in the Concert Hall dimmed, a surprisingly standard techno beat emerged from Mason Bates’ glowing Mac Book – the sort of ns ns ns sound that everyone thinks of when they think of techno. But the minimalistic electronica, laid on top of a symphonic powerhouse, was breathtaking. It was Mothership that ushered in the “newness” of the Declassified series for me, and made me realize that this was indeed a horse of a different color. In a genre so steeped in tradition, Mason Bates brings a bold new perspective that enhances symphonic music, but doesn’t compromise on its fundamentals.
It wasn’t until the final “act” that Ben Folds finally arrived on stage to perform his original piano concerto. In some ways, it felt like a bit of a bait-and-switch by The Kennedy Center. After all, the performance was billed as In Motion featuring Ben Folds, and preceding his performance with so much heavy symphony had a little bit of a “eat-your-vegetables-before-dessert” quality. However, the distinct advantage to putting Folds last was that the vast majority of the audience, who were obviously there to see Folds, did indeed stay until the end and thus got a full helping of NSO before cheering their favorite thick rimmed rock star.
Regardless, when Ben Folds did finally appear and sit down at the grand piano, positioned in profile and placed front and center, the singer/songwriter immediately dominated the stage. And it wasn’t just because he’s famous – his concerto is legitimately brilliant, and his performance was stunning in its energy and consistency. I have nowhere near the technical knowledge of some of my colleagues who can no doubt explain why, exactly, Ben Folds’ concerto is so good. But I will say this: as a young and unschooled symphony attendee, i.e. the exact person The Kennedy Center is trying to reach with their Declassified series, Ben Folds’ work holds up against any other classical pianist I have seen performed live.
But just as Folds brought a the precision and complexity of classical music to his concerto, so too did he bring his rock star’s sensibility. He could hardly stay seated on the leather piano bench, and at one point actually reached inside the grand piano to manually pluck the strings. That gesture probably sums up the intentions of the Declassified series: do it classical, but rock it out, too.
The second piece of Declassified’s strategy to lure the young out of their hookah bars and into concert halls is to offer something besides music; namely, a multimedia experience that both complements the music and serves as its own video art piece. The one offered on the night of In Motion featuring Ben Folds, and which only started playing during his “third act,” was quite brilliant. Produced in-house by Kennedy Center designers, the video was basically an abstract, non narrative series of beautiful images featuring the Nashville Ballet. The multimedia piece was certainly an interesting and artistic visual reference point to anchor ones eyes while Ben Folds wailed on the keyboard. As with the different elements of the show itself, there seemed not to be a direct connection between the Nashville Ballet, the video, Ben Folds, and symphonic music. This is not the worst thing; there is no Law of Art that all must be conceptually linked.
But I did sense that given a more cohesive and assertive concept for a Declassified show, there could be a far stronger and far more effective performance that was truly multi media, multi part, multi genre. The performance would transcend ordinary symphonic orchestra – it would be a much bigger piece that would be able to take the best elements of orchestra, of dance and techno, of costume and projection, and integrate them into a cohesive whole. As a start, though, it’s not half bad.
The Kennedy Center has scratched the surface of what is probably the biggest challenge facing symphonic music. They are beginning to present symphonic music as part of a new sound, a new event, that retains what is best about the original classics. If you build it, they will come. Just make sure that there are plenty of bartenders, and plenty of space through which to thrust a selfie stick.
Running Time: One hour and forty five minutes, with no intermission.
In Motion featuring Ben Folds played for one night only at the National Symphony Orchestra, performing at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – 2700 F St. NW, in Washington, D.C. For more information about the Declassified series click here. For more information about Ben Folds, click here. For more information about the National Symphony Orchestra, click here.