In Cleveland, we are fortunate to be blessed with many fine music institutions and one of the greatest halls in the country, if not the world. Severance Hall has been the home to many magical performances, from those weekly by the world-renown musicians of the Cleveland Orchestra, to the many dedicated and hard working student organizations that call our city home.

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Photograph courtesy of Robert Muller.

With a tremulous welcome, Ben Folds joined the Contemporary Youth Orchestra on stage for their sold out performance at Severance Hall on Monday, June 2nd. Folds could barely remain seated as the orchestra propelled forward through “Zak and Sara.” “Smoke” billowed from the stage in the languid lines of the strings and rich brass highlights that triumphantly rose. The trade off between Folds’ piano and the strings in the song’s last hurrah left the audience in awe of the musicianship unfolding on stage from these talented students.

“This next song is…Cocaine,” Folds bantered as he introduced “Jesusland.” Seeing a cellist mouth the words to a song that had been released before he had possibly learned his first scales as he powered through the song spoke to the lasting power of music—and was remarkably touching to witness. The ease in which Ben Folds voice blended with the orchestra’s double reeds was also quite moving.

“This is a highly superior version of what I grew up doing. We’re having a blast up here. A lot of times when you mix rock and roll and an orchestra, it’s a tought thing to do correctly. They’re doing it correctly. I had no idea that a group of kids this age would be able to tackle this piece. It’s crazy,” he remarked before director Liza Grossman lovingly took his microphone and placed it against the piano’s lid.

Folds prefaced his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra by saying he spent the last year “learning to compose ‘old school.’” The first movement opened with pizzicato percussion against legato string lines as Folds begins in the left hand, battling against the timpani. There’s clear jazz inflections throughout as Folds expands to the right hand. The low strings brought a swanky feel, near chaotic, as the accompaniment gave way to the first soloistic excerpt, which held within its few bars all the beauty of any romantic period piano. In no way was it a mimicry of that era, however, as there was enough of Folds’ unique sound that created a magic all his own.

Again the musicianship of the students made itself known as the violins handed off a very impressive piannissimo to the percusion, leading into a waltz section that created a whimsical music box moment. The second movement felt pensive; the piano explored legato phrasing which was often strengthened with the students’ unified sound. Orchestrated cell phone noises against the piano’s dissonant hits concluded the movement and welcomed the third, which opened with a locomotive piano emphasized by the tremulous orchestra. Folds stood, his hand in his piano to dampen its strings. The crowd rose as the last notes evaporated, providing the evening’s first standing ovation.

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Photograph courtesy of Robert Muller.

“Landed” will forever be etched into the crowd’s memory, not only for the striking musicianship, but for the way director Liza Grossman came to life on the podium. Folds struggled again to keep his seat. “Fred Jones Part 2” was introduced with an anecdotal story about Fred, who passed away twelve years ago. Folds gave the cellos a big thumbs up for their playing. At this point, director Liza Grossman asked the alumni members in the crowd to stand and be recognized. “Welcome home,” she beamed. The first half concluded with “Steven’s Last Night.”

After a brief intermission, the musicians returned to the stage with “Effington,” and a ‘glee club’ performance by orchestra members Eric Poe, Ben Poe, and Andrew Horvath. Every person in the hall got a good chuckle, I’m sure, thinking about God laughing over our football team. Thankfully, we have musicians in this city that make us proud. Folds noted that the mayor of Effingham, the city whose name inspired the song, had offered him a grave there. “I have to check it out before I lay my head to rest there.”

“Cologne” and “Annie Waits” followed, but the most notable part of the second half was undoubtedly sparked after an audience member yelled “ROCK THIS BITCH!” Folds told the audience the story behind that outburst, stating that he thought for this evening it should be “rock this hall,” before composing on the spot with the orchestra a song in which he spoke about the importance of the group of 115 students gracing the stage. “The Luckiest” filled the hall and brought tears to my eyes.

“What can I say? Of everything that I think is wrong these days, this is the solution, if you think about it,” Folds intoned. “What it did for my life getting to listen to these kids play in my band and what Liza and the organization is doing, I think is absolutely huge and I want to thank them for having me. Without fail, you go to a town that either has a crappy symphony orchestra or doesn’t have one at all, that is not a place you want to hang out. The orchestra doesn’t need us as much as we need the orchestra.”

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Photograph courtesy of Robert Muller.

“Not the Same” followed Folds’ inspiring speech about the orchestra’s importance, featuring a three-part vocal harmony from the audience and conducted by Ben himself. A rare performance of “Brick” found Folds’ voice wavering, but he quickly recovered while standing again for “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces.” Grossman was singing along. The bombastic brass excerpts rang out from the stage as Folds beat the Steinway with closed fists. “Narcolepsy” offered the tenor accompaniment of Mario Clapton, who had only been called in that evening to sing with the musicians. An encore brought the orchestra back to the stage to perform “Army,” which they had prepared for Ben.

What happened Monday night on that stage and in that hall is bigger than any one person who sat in attendance. And so, what the audience should take away is this: we are blessed in this town to have organizations, such as the Contemporary Youth Orchestra, that teach the next generation the power they hold– in their bows, in their air stream, in an instrument and through their camaraderie. I, for one, look forward to many more magical experiences brought to life by the fine student musicians of the Contemporary Youth Orchestra as they usher in their 20th year.