Ben Folds is known for his piano pop. But, when given a shot, he can get orchestral with the best of them.
In 2014 he wrote a piano concerto that he premiered and recorded with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. He wanted to flesh that performance out into a full album, so he collaborated with the yMusic Ensemble – six New York City instrumentalists who, not coincidentally, bridge the worlds of pop and classical music.
“I met yMusic first, and I didn’t even want to meet anybody else,” Folds said in a phone call from New York. “It was like one of those sort of ’50s stories with the couple who meet each other in high school and they don’t ever date anybody else, I guess. ‘She was the apple of my eye.’ ”
The resulting disc, “So There,” unexpectedly went to No. 1 on the Classical Albums chart last fall, giving Folds – far more a critics favorite with a devoted following than a commercial star – his first chart-topping disc of any sort.
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Still, despite his recent more-classical interludes, the musician continues to play his more familiar hits on tour. He will bring his solo acoustic piano show to Modesto’s Gallo Center for the Arts on Saturday, Oct. 22. Opening for him will be Central Valley native and Modesto Area Music Association Award-winning artist Aaron Durr. The singer-songwriter, who also specializes in piano-based pop, has since moved to Hollywood to pursue a musical career.
Folds rose to fame as the alt-pop rocker whose Ben Folds Five set the template for piano rock with its late 1995 self-titled debut and 1997’s platinum “Whatever and Ever Amen,” and its slightly askew songs “Kate,” “Brick” and “Army.”
Ben Folds Five reunited in 2012 for its first Top 10 album, “The Sound of the Life of the Mind.” But Folds says he wasn’t interested in following up that with another Ben Folds Five record because of the expectations it would bring. He says when it released “The Sound of the Life of the Mind,” people immediately were comparing it with the earlier work.
“Suddenly it’s like … ‘This is improved, this is not improved,’ and stuff like that,” he said. “I think it’s hard enough to make something new without sort of having any psychology like that in the way.
“In this climate, it became fodder for a tour, and … playing the older stuff somehow, and so I wasn’t all that interested in that whole exercise.”
Folds says he thinks the band would have to do “a whole lot of records together” to show people they are “not the same dudes we were in 1997.” Instead, he said, “I find a lot of freedom in doing other things because there’s not the expectation.”
Folds also skirted the Top 10 with solo discs “Songs for Silverman” and “Way to Normal” in the mid-2000s. He also had a run as a judge on the NBC-TV a cappella singing show “The Sing-Off” from 2009-13.
But his more recent records have concentrated on collaborations. In 2010, for example, he released the “Lonely Avenue” with English novelist and screenwriter Nick Hornby.
“I just like to work with other people,” Folds said. “I think most of the time when we make music, whether we call ourselves solo artists or not, we’re very much dependent on other people around it. Unless you just made it in your bedroom and no one came in, that’s the way it is.
“So I guess in a way it’s sort of, maybe in my old age I’m just really appreciative of the people around me and just proud of them and want them to be part of it. But they kind of feel like solo records.”
And maybe in five years, Ben Folds Five will get back together for another disc, without expectations, says Folds, who is 50.
“Whatever you want to call that get-back-together record that we did, I think it’s a really good record. I think really, in some ways, ‘Wow, I wish some of those things were on our earlier records, where they would have been heard.’ It would have been very interesting.”
He says he realizes the peril in doing different music than the formula for which you’re known.
“It’s like, ‘Oh, I think I’ll reinvent myself,’ and (fans) go, ‘I think I’ll go buy tickets to someone else’s concert,” he said. “That’s usually what happens. And then it becomes complicated for an artist, because then you want to say, ‘No! But my new stuff is better!’ And someone’s like, ‘No it’s not. It … sucks now. You were great at that time and now I don’t like it.’ ”
Bee staff reporter Marijke Rowland contributed to this report.