An invitation from Ben Folds

The Kennedy Center
5 min readNov 9, 2017

My role as Artistic Advisor to the NSO is the ultimate gig for me, allowing me to do so many of the things I’ve been dreaming of. This year especially, I’m thrilled to return to the Kennedy Center — side by side with some of today’s most brilliant musicians — to share my passion for musical innovation with an entirely new audience.

For the concerts we’ve been calling DECLASSIFIED: Ben Folds Presents, the vibe we’re going for is like I’m bringing friends over to my house to have a beer and play records. In this case though, my house happens to be the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, and the stereo is our National Symphony Orchestra.


At my first DECLASSIFIED: Ben Folds Presents concert last June, Danay Suárez, an up-and-coming Cuban artist, blew everyone’s tiny minds performing three songs with the NSO. Upon her return to Havana, she found out that her debut album received FOUR Latin Grammy nominations. No surprise there — Danay is one of those rare artists with a voice so incredibly pure, honest, and brilliant that when you see and hear her, you feel like her music has just always been around.

In case you missed it LIVE, here’s a sample of Danay’s talents at our June concert:

I can’t wait to unleash more of that on you at our next DECLASSIFIED show in the new year — Friday, January 12th to be exact — which will feature Caroline Shaw and Sara Bareilles with the NSO.


Caroline is, in my opinion, a total standout among modern composers. When she accepted the gig, I did a little jump up and down in my kitchen like a damn little kid. I’m so excited for those who don’t know her music to come by, crack open a beer, and listen. (In case you don’t know, all DECLASSIFIED concerts are informal in that way: plenty of cocktail options, and you don’t have to dress fancy.)

Unusual for a proper “classical” composer, Caroline also sings. She won the Pulitzer for music in 2013 with her composition “Partita for 8 Voices,” an a cappella work with the vocal ensemble Roomful Of Teeth:

Caroline will premiere a new work at our show, as well as orchestrate a song for my good friend Sara Bareilles. It’s important to me that these shows are full of music that you wouldn’t hear anywhere else — completely new compositions as well as new arrangements of stuff you already know and love.


Sara has expanded her job description from award-winning, platinum-selling, chart-topping musician to best-selling author and critically acclaimed hit Broadway composer (Waitress, anyone?). She is as good a singer as anyone who has ever made records, and it’s no fluke that she continues to succeed as she expands her artistry. I believe her success is rooted in her ability — both personally and artistically — to communicate with her distinct, pure voice.

Her incredible orchestration instincts are something that I don’t believe even she herself recognizes. The GarageBand recordings she makes at home are full of sophisticated and innovative compositions, something that our next DECLASSIFIED concert will highlight by expanding some to include a full orchestra. I’m out to showcase Sara for the exceptional modern composer she is, by teaming her up with our nation’s orchestra. So expect something old — and something new — from Sara on January 12!


Edwin Outwater is a conductor who deeply understands the reason a piece of music was made, bringing the human experience to the fore. Neither he, nor I, see any reason to draw a difference between a great popular music artist and an established classical one. Looking back at Scott Joplin, George Gershwin, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, or Joni Mitchell, for example, we can see that some of the most influential composers of our day are often the most popular.

Orchestrating for Sarah Bareilles are two of the most sought-after arrangers of our generation: Rob Moose, of yMusic and Bon Iver, who has played on multiple Grammy-winning albums including Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs… and Alex Lacamoire, whose orchestral work on Hamilton recently won him two Tony Awards. They’ll be joined by award-winning percussion ensemble Sō Percussion for an additional NSO arrangement.


As I invite you to drop by “Uncle Ben’s” in January for a drink and some music, another part of our DECLASSIFIED series that’s very important to me is putting the needle down on some orchestral works. I want to make this an absolute safe haven for anyone who’s not an expert on “classical” music. All you need is a pair of ears and a heart. Context is everything, and we’re creating an environment that I think will give you a great “way in.” We’re not dumbing down a note of music to speak down to a “pop” audience — I’ve never done that in my music. We’re choosing two short pieces of orchestral music in this show that I’m confident will stick with you for a lifetime.

I’ll be at the January gig, MC-ing and sitting in some with our artists. I’m currently overseeing all the orchestration, production, and everything that I can throw at it so you can seamlessly hear and feel music equally for what it’s trying to say — its voice, rather than its classification.

De-classified… get it?

— Ben


January 12, 2018
The National Symphony Orchestra featuring Caroline Shaw and Sara Bareilles
Edwin Outwater, conductor