For fifteen years, Ben Folds has been fusing his witty singer-songwriter musicianship with jazz and power rock to create a unique style that has been entertaining audiences across the U.S. Folds began his career in the rock trio Ben Folds Five and now performs as a solo artist, as well as a judge on NBC’s The Sing-Off. On March 22, he returned to Meymandi Concert Hall for a two-night engagement with the North Carolina Symphony under the baton of Sarah Hicks; his previous visit here was in 2010.

Folds began with wide-open energy that pervaded the audience for the duration of the show. The opening number, “Zak and Sara,” from Folds’ first solo album, Rockin’ the Suburbs, kicked things off with powerful sounds from the concert grand piano supported by the full strength of the NC Symphony. Alternating between crowd-pumping favorites like “Zak and Sara” and “Effington,” and melodic tunes like “Landed” and “Fred Jones, part 2,” the talented musicians on stage thrilled the crowd from start to finish. Along with the high-energy entertainment, Ben Folds shared personal stories about his children and charismatic retellings of coming up with songs on the spot, like “Effington” and “Cologne.” The audience cheered with amazement when Folds did some on-the-spot composition during Friday night’s performance, improvising with the entire NC Symphony and Kerry Marsh’s Foldschoir, a group of talented vocalists who sang back up for the performance. Not one to leave out his fans, Ben Folds conducted the audience in three-part harmony during “Not the Same” and then split those three parts into two halves singing different rhythms; an impressive feat for a large crowd with, perhaps, little or no experience singing back-up!

Folds remarked that each of his compositions was written for the piano with the sounds of a full orchestra in mind, and it showed. The NC Symphony shone with each piece, providing tension and strength to support the piano that Folds played like a Slam Grand, pounding out melodies with a force that kept the crowd screaming for more. During “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces,” the orchestra reached a volume that could only be rivaled by their volume in the later performance of “Narcolepsy.” By the end of the hour and a half set, including an encore of “Luckiest,” Folds humbly thanked the NCS as they made their exit and then played another encore for the adoring fans. His finale included one of his greatest solo hits, “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” in which the audience experienced the rare – perhaps once in a lifetime – opportunity to shout obscenities in Meymandi Concert Hall! Folds entertained the crowd with an impromptu turn with the entire array of percussive instruments, played with as much skill as the piano, and said farewell with the crowd favorite “Army.” With his tremendous skill as a musician and his charismatic presence on the stage, Folds remained a humble and appreciative performer, taking time to express the ultimate importance of powerful artistic institutions such as the North Carolina Symphony. While members of the orchestra exercise absolute expertise with their instruments, they lay aside the drive to stand alone in the spotlight and work together to create a greater work of art. It is something this orchestra does nearly every week. Folds urged onlookers to continue their patronage, and the Raleigh audience, ever-loyal to their NC Symphony, applauded loudly their willingness to comply.

The North Carolina Symphony’s Raleigh season continues on March 30th with Mozart’s Two Pianos. For details, see our calendar.