In the Moment: Report on ‘Declassified’ with Ben Folds and Sara Bareilles at The Kennedy Center

Under the masterful, musical code-switching curation of National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) Artistic Advisor Ben Folds, the future for new audiences finding their way to the usually buttoned-up, High Arts atmosphere of a classical music venue was very clear at the most recent NSO Declassified concert.

Ben Folds. Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Center.

The one performance-only Declassified on Friday evening, January 12th, was a seamlessly unfolding musical evening of adventure. It spotlighted the fluently, musically multi-lingual talents of Folds. With his ten musical selection, the imaginative in-the-moment performances of special guests, pop vocalist and composer Sara Bareilles and composer, violinist, and vocalist Caroline Shaw along with the NSO conducted by Edwin Outwater the evening was a knock-out that subversively meshed the pop with the classical. (OK, I learned to appreciate the classics from watching cartoon shorts and long-form animated features at my small town movie house when I was growing up. And listened to Sgt. Pepper’s use of a major symphony orchestra through my own haze)

Folds opened the evening as master-of-ceremony, with comments that quickly brought the audience to knowing attention, then applause and potent cheers. He spoke of how the beauty of music can be a way to protest and speak out against the oppressive and oppressor, that music and the human voice can speak out against injustice in their own dissident ways (my paraphrasing). The NSO immediately began to convey such sentiments with the almost mournful, string-dominated “Cantabile for Strings” by Peteris Vasks. The piece had almost impossible to explain, emotionally riveting long-held string notes that conductor Outwater expressively conveyed with his finger gestures.

Composer Caroline Shaw. Photo by Kait Moreno.

Next up were three modern compositions performed by Caroline Shaw, including: “Red, Red Rose” by Robert Burns/Caroline Shaw, “Entr’acte” composed and arranged by Shaw, and “Other Song” composed by Shaw with arrangements by Shaw and Dominic Mekky. Shaw’s composition and her singing were not merely polished, but otherworldly in their presentations of humanity. Her voice and that of an 8 member chorus (Kerry Marsh Singers) were uniquely spiritually rich presentations, as if in a timeless cathedral. There was such an ease in her manner, such comfort even with difficult vocal passages. Is it any wonder Shaw won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music (at age 29 – the youngest ever as Folds told the audience) for her composition “Partita for 8 Voices,” an a capella work for the vocal ensemble Roomful Of Teeth and has worked with the likes of Kanye West.

After Shaw’s three compositions, conductor Outwater introduced Shostakovich’s “Allegro from Symphony No.10 in E minor.” The piece, written during the height of Stalin’s power in the late 1930’s Soviet Union, was one of tremendous emotion and percussion, like a blow against tyranny (or as I came to recall driving home, with the visual power of the famous 1984 ad for Apple in its metaphoric strike against IBM).

The evening then pivoted to Sara Bareilles. If you don’t know Bareilles, she is a multiple Grammy and Tony-nominated pop vocalist and composer. Her Tony nomination was for Best Original Score for her Broadway musical Waitress. Her book Sounds Like Me: My Life (So Far) In Song, was a New York Times bestseller. Bareilles was recently announced to play Mary Magdelene in the April 2018 NBC Live production of Jesus Christ Superstar with Alice Cooper and John Legend.

Bareilles performed her pop hits and two songs from her musical Waitress, often accompanied by piano or a small band, but this time with new orchestration and arrangements and performed with the bigger sound accompaniment of the NSO. The numbers were “Used to Be Mine,” If I Dare,” “Love Song,” “Brave,” and “Once Upon Another Time.” I was willingly drowned in the sounds of Bareilles’ voice, the vulnerable emotions she expressed in her lyrics and the underlying NSO strings. The compositions were oh so smooth. The very knowing Concert Hall audience gave each Bareilles number a rousing reception including hoots and whoops.

Sara Bareilles as seen in the musical Waitress. Photo by Josh Lehrer.

Then came the final number of the evening. It was the Bareilles anthem “Brave.” It began with a hush, then Bareilles stood and sang as if in church, with Shaw and Folds surrounding her with heads bowed. Then Shaw, Folds and Bareilles became a beautiful trio of harmony. There were moments of a kind of stillness of voice and musical instruments as if the three, joined by The Kerry Marsh Singers and the NSO were reaching up to God through song about not letting an enemy stare you down.

Finally, let me add that the Declassified evening’s casual atmosphere was enriched with pre and post-concert features. There was some free beer tasting from Alexandria’s Port City Brewery before the show a well as entertainment by the Faux Paz, a University of Maryland a Cappella group and Wes Swing, a singer and multi-instrumentalist. After Declassified concluded, on the Millennium stage was live band karaoke by Hari-Karaoke pumping out tunes with the audience totally energized and involved.

Folds accomplished what he had set out to do for concert-goers and music-lovers of any age and taste at the Declassified concert. It was an event where all that was needed to experience and appreciate the music, was only “a pair of ears and a heart.” And folks, do stay tuned, additional Declassified performances are in the works for 2018.

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

National Symphony Orchestra’s Declassified was performed on January 12, 2018, at 9 p.m. in the Concert Hall at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For future NSO events go online.