Hi. I'm Jenna McGuiggan.
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The Gorgeous Spectacle of a Ben Folds Orchestral Concert

stealth iPhone photo

Fireworks of joy.

Underwater odyssey of cool blue sadness.

Pink petal melancholy longing.

A carousel.


A train.

The green light of hospital rooms.
The green light of hope.


A pool of water.

** ** **

These are the notes I made in the semi-dark two Fridays ago while sitting in the aisle seat of Row F, Orchestra Center, close enough to Ben Folds and his grand piano that he could have nearly heard me whisper in a moment of quiet between songs.

Earlier in the week I'd heard that Mr. Folds would be in town to play a one-night gig with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. On the day of the concert, four hours before curtain, with no one available to go with me, I called the box office, on a whim. (No, not a whim. What's deeper than on-a-whim but less intent than on-a-mission?)

The box office lady tells me that there's a single aisle seat six rows back from the stage, would I like it?

I would.

Three hours later and I'm in that aisle seat. Orchestra gets settled. Lights dim. Conductor walks on stage. Applause. Orchestra starts to play something sweeping, like the dramatic opening of an old movie. Thirty seconds into it Ben Folds lopes jauntily out from stage right. Thunderous applause. Hoots, hollers, whoops and cheers.

{What must it be like to be a rockstar? To have people cheer at your presence before you ever strike a note? Is it a rush? Is it lonely? Overwhelming? Empowering? All of the above?}

Ben waves at the crowd on his beeline to piano, center stage. He and the conductor exchange a look, the orchestra softens just a bit, and Ben plunges into "Zak and Sara" with its fast rollicking vamping piano-power-chords. The air electric. The crowd thrilled. More clapping and whoops of joy. Everyone knows this song.

An admission: I don't know this song. In fact, I don't know a lot of Ben Folds' music. I'm not what you'd call a diehard fan. I've basically liked whichever of his songs I might have heard on the radio over the years, and I enjoyed him as a judge on the reality show "The Sing-Off." But I can't sing along with most of the songs he plays this night. I didn't even know the name of "Zak and Sara" until I looked it up today. In addition to my list of impressions, I made notes of keywords from all the songs so I could figure out the set list later.

I don't know why I needed to be able to recreate the set list. I don't even know why I needed to go to this concert. I don't know why I spent $85 on a ticket to go by myself to see a musician that I knew only marginally. I just knew that I like the symphony, I like orchestral pop, and I knew that Ben Folds' music makes me feel something real and true. And I needed that.

Those fireworks of joy I mentioned above: Those were the words I jotted down to describe "Zak and Sara." The music started and I couldn't stop smiling. The sound -- and the emotion -- was big. Epic, even. Now, after listening to the lyrics of "Zak and Sara," I'm not even sure if it's a happy song, but I grinned the whole way through it -- and through much of the concert. I grinned like a maniac. You would have thought I'd been waiting for this concert my whole life.

The piano and the orchestra didn't always mesh perfectly. Sometimes the sound was messy. Sometimes it was harmonious. It didn't really matter. I delighted in the gorgeous spectacle of it all. The crowed loved Ben's jokes and judicious use of curse words. Judging by the look on the face of a grey-haired gentleman playing first violin, not everyone in the orchestra felt the same way. That made me grin all the more.

I don't know why I'm telling you any of this. I'm trying to find the meaning in the experience, to make sense of it. But the meaning was just there in the experience; I don't need to make something of it. Still, this is what I try to do as a writer. I look for the meaning so I can figure out how to tell you about it, so you can have the experience alongside me in rewind.

I want to tell you how much I love it when musicians invite the audience to sing along, even going so far as to give us a refrain in three-part harmony. I want you to experience how fun it is when a man in the third row shouts "Rock this bitch!", which, as I learned, is code at a Ben Folds' concert for making up a song on the spot -- and Ben proceeds to do just that, instructing the orchestra what to play, coaxing out a clarinet solo. I want you to stand up with me for the second encore, when Ben comes back on stage sans orchestra and rocks out on the piano with hundreds of audience members as his back-up singers, all of us standing and singing and joining in the glorious spectacle. And when Ben sings "You better watch out, 'cause I'm gonna say ___" and then drops out, you'll quickly learn just what judicious curse word fills in the blank, and you'll shout it along with the rest of the audience.

If you watch the video below or do a search on YouTube, you'll discover, as I did, that Ben's done this show before. Or rather, he's done some version of it before: the dramatic entrance, the piano pounding, the storytelling, the audience participation. He didn't dream this up for this one show. I suppose you could let this dampen the magic of the experience, but it shouldn't. Because there we all were -- the audience, Ben, the backup singers on stage left, the conductor, the orchestra -- all of us doing it for each other, for this one night.

If Ben had been listening, and if I had whispered something from Row F, I could have said Thank you, or Can I sing with you?, or Rock on!

Or maybe I would have just said, Yes. This, yes.


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