Concert Review: Nu Deco Ensemble/(Not Much) Ben Folds

A previous Nu Deco performance (Photography by Alex Markow)

Expectations can be a bitch. Last night, at Nu Deco Ensemble’s penultimate concert of the season, at the Adrienne Arsht Center, they ended up torpedoing an otherwise engaging—if uneven, and a bit misshapen—night of eclectic music, at least for anyone who showed up for the evening’s ostensible headliner. More on that later.

Structured as a tribute to the American songwriter, the performance opened with the world premiere of a medley of re-arranged Bill Withers hits. It was Nu Deco at its best, akin to its riveting Queen medley from Festival of the Arts Boca last month. With its funky motifs and soaring melodies—I especially loved the screaming, punctuative trumpet, which felt like a sonic orgasm two-thirds of the way through—the composition was a triumphant merging of ‘70s soul and contemporary orchestral music.

Jenn Wasner, one-half of the indie groups Flock of Dimes and Wye Oak, emerged next, as the first of three special guests for the evening, performing Flock’s “Everything is Happening Today” and William Brittelle’s “Spiritual America”—both lovely, languid, and lyrically evocative of the little miracles of life and nature we take for granted. Wasner played electric guitar off to stage left, her notes echoing sharply through the concert hall, while electronic samples combined with live orchestral music to create a warm ear-bath of digital and analog textures. It was probably not for everyone, but it has encouraged me to explore Wasner’s catalog further.

Nu Deco concluded the program’s first half with a spirited rendition of Aaron Copeland’s 1938 ballet “Billy the Kid,” his elegiac ode to the Wild West. Ranging from sprightly to thunderous, Nu Deco’s arrangement evoked jubilance, the freedom of the frontier and the inevitability of conflict; it was the kind of score you’d expect to hear playing over CinemaScope images of Monument Valley. I swore I heard a few horse hooves clomping around too.

For all of these rewards, the composition still felt a bit overlong. But this quibble is minor compared to the concert’s more disjointed second half, with its curious and demoralizing sense of time management. Ben Folds, one of the greatest singer-songwriters of the past 25 years, and a friend to both the Nu Deco Ensemble and the very concept of classical and pop-music hybridization, was announced as the marquee special guest for this concert. But his performance, for all the fanfare preceding it—a piano ascended on a center-stage platform from an invisible pit just before his entrance—consisted of a torturously short three songs. All of them—“Capable of Anything,” the live premiere of his “I’m Not the Man” arrangement and his Ben Folds Five hit “Brick”—sounded achingly beautiful, all receiving enhanced pathos from the robust symphonic accompaniment.

But in what universe is a three-song headlining set acceptable? And why would Kimbra, the New Zealand-based singer-songwriter with three albums to her name, and who was all of 5 years old when Ben Folds Five released its sensational debut, get to play five songs to Folds’ three? A charismatic, if nervous, performer in her Miami debut, Kimbra had a vocal contingent of fans in the audience, but I found myself checking my watch throughout her set. She’s a gifted pop singer who occasionally brought to mind Imogen Heap and Amy Winehouse, but lyrically she seemed outclassed by the evening’s other guests.

Folds was, frankly, the reason I made the schlep from Boca, expecting at least another eight-song set, which I sadly missed last March at the Arsht. This past Tuesday, Miami New Times even published a lengthy feature and interview with Folds to promote this misleading concert. If it was known that Folds would play just three songs, would such coverage feel warranted? I can’t imagine how cheated theirreaders, paying consumers all, must have felt. When the orchestra teased an encore performance only to bring out Folds and Kimbra for curtain bows, they all but rubbed salt in the wound.

My only conclusion about this unfortunate situation is that Folds and the orchestra had prepared a longer set but were constrained by the clock. Certainly, the 8 p.m. performance started awfully late, and the intermission ran long. But this is no excuse; if the orchestra was limited on time, a couple of Kimbra’s songs should have been cut first. The Nu Deco Ensemble may be run by gifted conductors with a singular vision, but if they want to play in the pop/rock sandbox, they need to learn its rules.