"They weren't stupid when they spent all the money they spent on the Schermerhorn," says Ben Folds. "There's some vision involved in that, and I agree with it." Another expensive and not-stupid project Folds agrees with these days is the multi-million-dollar push to restore the hall, which was badly damaged in the May flood. And Folds' support is not a cheer from the cheap seats — he's actually helping to foot the bill.
The Schermerhorn may be closed for repairs, but a benefit concert at TPAC this Saturday will feature Nashville piano-pop savant and occasional National Geographic photographer Folds accompanied by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and conductor Francisco Noya. Also joining the festivities will be pre-teen piano prodigy Ethan Bortnick, who has performed with Stevie Wonder and Beyoncé, among others. The 9-year-old Bortnick has quickly become one of the most entertaining serial fundraisers going, in addition to being the youngest person ever to have his own PBS special. All the musicians are donating their time for the concert, with Noya and Bortnick flying in from Providence, R.I., and Miami, respectively, on their own dime.
Some of the proceeds will go toward bridging the gap between what the flood destroyed and what the symphony's insurance will pay. The rest will go toward the Franklin and Pleasant View volunteer fire departments. "These guys are as honorable as they get, just by virtue of what they're doing," says Folds — although he admits he might be biased, since his tour bus driver doubles as a Pleasant View fireman.
As for the Schermerhorn itself, Folds believes it was worth the cost in treasure.
"It is a world-class hall," he explains. "It feels good in there, and it's solid, and it'll last for years. ... It's right up there with any of them when you consider everything."
But that's not the real reason Folds is so determined to do what he can to help bring the 4-year-old hall back to its former glory. In his mind, the Schermerhorn is much more than a beautiful, solidly constructed and acoustically well tuned building that houses one of the country's most-recorded symphonies — though it is that as well.
"The way I look at it is that we live in what we call Music City," he says. "That's great, and that kicks ass ... but the title doesn't mean as much if you don't have a proper symphony hall and a good, healthy symphony orchestra."
And as Folds sees it, we can't be a real music city — much less the Music City — without it.
"You can imagine two cities," Folds says. "You can imagine a Nashville that's all about country music and the Country Music Hall of Fame — and that's something to really be proud of — and that's it. That's one kind of place. It's another thing if all those country artists and musicians can say that once or twice a year they attend the symphony to see Mahler.
"That makes it another kind of place, and I think that's the place everyone wants to live in."
So when the Schermerhorn flooded in May — with water damaging or destroying more than $40 million worth of equipment and structure, before miraculously stopping a few inches short of inundating the main hall — Folds immediately took that as his cue.
"Obviously, there was a lot of damage from the flood," he says. "I just assumed that anyone who could raise any money was going to stand up and put themselves into it. The symphony orchestra just looked like an area I could help."
In fact, Folds' experience put him in a unique position to lend a hand. "Most pop musicians ... might go, 'Oh, I'd like to do something for the orchestra,' which would be a great idea," he says, "[but] they might not have all the charts. I've played with the symphony orchestra before, and they've actually used my studio to rehearse."
While Folds is doing his part to raise both capital and awareness, he isn't necessarily given to high-minded over-seriousness. Come Dec. 6, he'll serve as a judge, jury and possibly executioner on the NBC show The Sing-Off, devoted to one of his demonstrated enthusiasms: a cappella vocal groups. His commingling of high and low art — what the writer Mikhail Bakhtin might call "carnivalesque" — is exemplified in his latest album, Lonely Avenue, a collaboration with the British novelist Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy, Fever Pitch). Hornby wrote the lyrics, which Folds set to music. As showcased in a recent appearance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, Folds and his band turned a song written by a novelist about a poet — the eponymous Saskia Hamilton — into a frenetic call-and-response shout-along, complete with galloping drums and art-punk freak-out energy.
So while he insists the Schermerhorn didn't garner a level of media attention commensurate with its importance during this year's flood — and he's serious about that — Folds is not above indulging his silly side, either. On tour this year, he performed impromptu songs on the video chat site Chatroulette while onstage in front of a live audience, in part to dispel the notion that a Chatroulette balladeer by the name of Merton (also a bespectacled piano player) was him, and in part just to have some fun with the Internet. As he puts it, "The person who's on the Chatroulette on the other end, is looking at someone who has thousands of people behind him in the audience, so now they're sitting on the toilet in front of 2,000 people." Folds also recently covered "Sleazy," trash-pop icon Ke$ha's ode to partying and the orgasm-inducing power of drums, after deciding that morning that he wanted to cover whatever was the most popular song in the land at the moment.
While Folds likes to mix it up and keep things unpredictable — he says there are invitations out to a variety of "famous and quasi-famous friends" to join him Saturday night — he's not taking his beloved Schermerhorn lightly.
"It's important," he says. "It's symbolic."