“I just want to say thank God for the bureaucrats and the lawyers,” Ben Folds exclaims as he leans over a grand piano in the Kennedy Center’s concert hall. “They do good, honest work — and someone has to do it!”
His audience roars. After more than an hour of seemingly random excerpts from Jean Sibelius, Edvard Grieg, and the contemporary composer Jherrek Bischoff, Folds, a self-described “major music influencer of our generation,” is finally giving the audience what they came for.
“So, I decided to write this song about Rod Rosenstein,” he says.
The audience loses it laughing again as Folds explains. The Washington Post asked him in 2018 to compose a humorous tune about former White House Communications director Anthony Scaramucci. Folds declined, but offered instead to write about someone who is “honorable and works quietly.” Rosenstein, at that time under pressure from House Republicans to release documents related to then-special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of interference in the 2016 election, was stonewalling lawmakers during a series of congressional hearings. His resistance enchanted Folds.
The pop singer set to work learning everything he could about the bespectacled lawyer. He watched every one of Rosenstein’s speeches and delved into all of his cases, even the obscure ones. After much study, Folds came up with “Mister Peepers,” an earnest folk-rock song praising Rosenstein and all “the keepers of this fragile young republic.” Folds is proud of it: he jokes that because of the intense writing process, he probably knows more about Rosenstein than the former deputy attorney general’s own mother does.
“I wanted to be sure of who I was writing about — and I’m still dead sure,” Folds says just before he and the Kennedy Center’s National Symphony Orchestra jump right in.
“Mister Peepers” was intended to be one of the high points of Friday’s “DECLASSIFIED: Ben Folds Presents,” a Kennedy Center series with which Folds has been involved since 2015 and has led since 2017. But like so many things Folds and the NSO have played together over the past five years, the song — and the latest installment of DECLASSIFIED along with it — came across as slapdash, muddled, and embarrassingly amateurish.
This is not a new problem for Folds. DECLASSIFIED has struggled to find its footing since the Kennedy Center announced in December 2015 that the pop artist best known for “Brick” and “Rockin’ the Suburbs” would kick off the series with some classical selections and a piano concerto of Folds’s own composition.
“We’re hoping we reach an audience that might not normally come to classical concerts but might be interested in the guest artist or the program, and we’re of course hoping that this audience is a younger and broader demographic than that of our regular classical concerts,” Nigel Boon, the NSO’s director of artistic planning, told the Washington Post at the time.
In preparation for that younger, more hip audience, the Kennedy Center set to work upsetting its regular concertgoers. It jacked up the prices on concessions by about a dollar, a decision which coincided with the introduction of a new selection of craft beers, to be served for the first time at Folds’s inaugural concert. And, just for good measure, the Kennedy Center relaxed its strict “no food or drink in the concert hall” rule for Folds, no doubt to the horror of its cleaning staff.
All in vain. The first DECLASSIFIED was a bust, trashed by critics and audiences alike. Folds claimed that the program would be “extremely well thought-out instrumental music that speaks to the time.” But he gave audiences the opposite: an “ambitious, neo-romantic, meandering piano concerto, filled with big, lush statements and piano-bar statements and pop-song statements that didn’t really add up to a coherent train of thought,” in the words of the Washington Post’s music critic Anne Midgette.
Folds had speculated that critics weren’t going to be pleased, telling DCist, “A person studying at Juilliard may flunk with the piece that I wrote.” He justified his effort by claiming that audiences would love the concerto for its melody-driven qualities.
He was wrong there, too. Audiences expected him to sing and play his best bangers while the orchestra did its own thing. After all, the whole point of DECLASSIFIED was to blend high art with low — to elevate the average Joe’s love of Folds to a newfound appreciation of, say, Mahler, and produce a delightfully middlebrow synthesis. Instead, Folds served disappointment with a side of self-indulgent mediocrity.
Folds lay low after his first DECLASSIFIED embarrassment. But he returned in full force when the Kennedy Center announced in 2017 that he would become the NSO’s Artistic Adviser and take over the DECLASSIFIED series. Folds also assumed responsibility of the NSO’s Young People’s Concerts and Family Concert, another effort to make classical music accessible to the masses.
Instead of more concertos, he allowed the NSO to play selections from its current repertoire. For his own part, he reverted to playing pop. To keep a steady flow of audience interest, he invited big names such as Sara Barellies and Regina Spektor to play orchestral versions of their own hits.
Together, they put on spirited performances of Barellies’s “Love Song” and “Brave” as well as Spektor’s version of “Dear Theodosia” from the musical Hamilton. Folds also kept audiences entertained with his political banter and trademark self-deprecation. But for most audiences, the series’ main attraction — classical music — stayed classified.
Over the years, Folds has become increasingly prickly when his critics continued to point out that while he excels at pop (and playing piano with such luminaries as Pete Buttigieg), his direction of the NSO is subpar, producing music that won’t likely entice younger audiences to attend “real” classical performances.
“Frankly, I’ve been really disheartened by the local journalistic criticism of the show,” he vented to On Tap last November. “We made it look so easy that they’ve come in and had problems with certain things but I think if they knew what it was, you wouldn’t have a problem with it.”
The problem, Folds said, was that no critic truly understands his project. Comparing himself to Bob Dylan at the beginning of his career, Folds explained that DECLASSIFIED is “so incredibly ambitious” that it takes an exceptional person to understand it. Furthermore, he said, success doesn’t really depend on how good or bad Folds’s performance is. DECLASSIFIED isn’t about the quality of the performance: it’s about inspiring the audience “to learn something about classical music.”
Folds insisted it’s working.
“We give people who come to the shows a listening list, and we can see behind this internet curtain that they are actually listening to it after the show,” he said. “So, say we didn’t really kill the Beethoven last time — and I know that we didn’t, and the band knows that we didn’t, and the conductor knows that we didn’t — it’s just the way it happened. But people are still listening to that Beethoven piece on Spotify.”
And that’s good enough for him. No wonder then, that his advertisement for the latest show presents DECLASSIFIED as an unpolished, unprofessional attempt at a genre that demands the opposite.
“Come grab a drink and see some damn good music,” he writes on the Kennedy Center’s website. “It’s like coming over to my house, having a beer or a scotch, and dropping the needle on some awesome records.”
With that endorsement, why not just stay home and do just that? After all, there’s no Rod Rosenstein — and the booze is free.