REVIEW: WGBH’s ‘Tis the Night with Ben Folds and Friends’ holiday music special offers some impressive, lighthearted cheer

Ben Folds, award-winning lead singer of Ben Folds Five, rang in the holiday season with some of Boston’s most renowned performers as he hosted Tis the Night with Ben Folds and Friends which has been featured on WGBY Public TelevisionNew Hampshire PBS, and WGBH 2 this month.  Ben has collaborated with many acclaimed artists in his over 20-year career including Regina Spektor, William Shatner, Tori Amos, and Weezer.  He is also known for performing with many orchestras throughout the world.  Take a closer look at Tis the Night here,  click here to find out when WGBH will broadcast this show next, or here to stream it online.

In this WGBH holiday special, Ben hosts for the most part, leaving it to renowned Boston choruses such as the Boston Children’s Chorus, Handel and Haydn Society, the Harvard- Radcliffe Collegium Musicum, and students from the New England Conservatory to bring in the good cheer.  However, in the few times he collaborated with the artists, this concert special became that much more engaging.

Ben Folds and Caleb Teicher perform on Tis the Night (Meredith Nierman - WGBH)

Ben Folds and Caleb Teicher perform on ‘Tis the Night’ Photo courtesy of Meredith Nierman/WGBH

Tis the Night with Ben Folds and Friends offered a selection of well-known holiday songs done in new, insightful ways.  Surrounded by blue festive lights and illuminated snowflakes, Tis the Night opened fittingly with I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day sung warmly by the Boston Children’s Chorus, dressed in red scarves and multicolored shirts as Ben Folds looks on.

Handel and Haydn orchestra and chorus perform on Tis the Night (Meredith Nierman - WGBH)2

Handel and Haydn orchestra and chorus perform on ‘Tis the Night’ Photo courtesy of Meredith Nierman/WGBH 

Handel and Haydn’s Society took on three memorable choruses from Handel’s Messiah, which was a lighthearted take from the classic version.  It was refreshing to hear, though I prefer the classic interpretation.  However, the Handel and Haydn Society’s uplifting, angelic harmony was no less impressive, ending on a triumphant note.

Ben Folds took a break from hosting to join NYC choreographer Caleb Teicher for a catchy version of Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth.  They were accompanied by New England Conservatory student guitarist Andres Orco-Zerpa and student bassist Tyler Wagner.  Affectionately calling Caleb’s tapping “drumming for your feet,” Ben Folds drummed while singing a duet with Caleb, whose freestyle tapping got more remarkable as the beat escalated.

Harvard Radcliffe Collegium Musicum performs in Tis the Night (Sam Brewer - WGBH) (1)

Harvard Radcliffe Collegium Musicum performs in ‘Tis the Night’ Photo courtesy of Sam Brewer/WGBH 2

Conducted by Music Director Andrew Clark, The Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum was a particular highlight.  Their peaceful, silvery vocals enriched their first number, In the Bleak Midwinter as picturesque scenes were shown of new fallen snow topped on trees and covered in fields. Sung entirely acapella, that captivating number was followed by a few more impressive classic Christmas carols.

New England Conservatory student jazz vocalist Darynn Dean, decked out in a shimmering dress and accompanied by student pianist Matthew Thompson, delivered a jazz-infused, airy version of Jingle Bells. Darynn’s agile vocals scat and soared while Matthew’s lighthearted piano solo created an exhilarating medley.

vocalist Darynn Dean and pianist Matthew Thomson perform Jingle Bells on Tis the Night (Sam Brewer - WGBH)2

Vocalist Darynn Dean and pianist Matthew Thomson perform Jingle Bells on ‘Tis the Night’ Photo courtesy of Sam Brewer/WGBH 

Under an illuminated starlit sky, New England Conservatory student soprano Saori Erickson accompanied by student pianist Bethany Pietroniro performed a gorgeous, emotionally-rich version of Ave Maria.

soprano Saori Erickson and pianist Bethany Pietroniro performing Ave Maria (Sam Brewer - WGBH)

Soprano Saori Erickson and pianist Bethany Pietroniro performing ‘Ave Maria’ Photo courtesy of Sam Brewer/WGBH

Ending on a bright, inviting note with Ben Folds, the Boston Children’s Chorus, and Caleb Teicher collaborating on We Wish You a Merry Christmas, Tis the Night offered a few great reasons why the holiday season is the most wonderful time of the year.

Laurence Lesser shares music memories as New England Conservatory celebrates his 80th birthday and Leonard Bernstein’s centennial in free opening concert

‘You don’t choose music.  It chooses you.’  This is just one of renowned cellist and longtime New England Conservatory (NEC) President Emeritus Laurence Lesser’s thoughts on music as Lesser celebrates his 80th birthday in a big way with the New England Conservatory Philharmonic and acclaimed conductor Hugh Wolff on Wednesday, September 26 at 7:30 p.m.

Taking place at NEC’s Jordan Hall in Boston, Massachusetts, this free concert also pays tribute to Boston native, legendary composer, and NEC Prep alumnus Leonard Bernstein’s centennial with Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and much more.  Click here for more information and how to reserve seats to this extraordinary concert.

NEC’s Laurence Lesser, who will be performing at the concert, discusses his history with music, the cello, career surprises, and recording Hollywood soundtracks from films such as Rosemary’s Baby.

Sleepless Critic:  I understand you were invited to perform with the New England Conservatory Philharmonic and conductor Hugh Wolff for your 80th birthday celebration.  Were you able to choose your own music?

Laurence Lesser:  I asked to do Ernest Bloch’s  Schelomo because it is a wonderful piece full of personal meaning for me.

SC:  What first interested you in music, especially the cello?

LL:  My parents took me to LA Phil Children’s concerts when I was about 5.  I wanted to play the double bass, but they thought that was too big for a little guy and gave me a cello for my 6th birthday.

SC:  I understand you play a 1622 Italian-made cello.  There must be an amazing story behind how you obtained it.

LL:  I was looking for a great old Italian cello with a true solo voice and bigger dimension than what I was using.  I saw it in a shop in London, England, but I was second in line for it.  Fortunately very soon afterwards in 1972, it came my way.

Leonard Lesser

Photo credit to Carlin Ma Photography

SC:  What was it that encouraged you to pursue music as a career?

LL:  My mother was a pianist.  My two older brothers and I had music lessons from an early age.  When I went to college at Harvard to study mathematics, I soon knew that mathematics was the wrong path for me and it had to be music.  You don’t choose music, it chooses you.

SC:  Music afforded you a great deal of opportunities, just a couple of them recording Hollywood soundtracks such as Rosemary’s Baby and Finian’s Rainbow and traveling the world.  What kind of surprise opportunities have you experienced in your career or a moment where you couldn’t believe this is happening to you?

LL:  I played in chamber music concerts with Jascha Heifetz and my teacher Gregor Piatigorsky and we performed at Carnegie Hall.  Such a wonderful place and an amazing memory to be on stage with those musical giants!

SC:  How did you end up working at the New England Conservatory?  I understand during your tenure as President, you were part of the restoration of Jordan Hall and you curated ‘First Mondays at Jordan Hall.’  Please tell me about that.

LL:  I was invited to teach there by then President, Gunther Schuller.  Jordan Hall is one of the greatest ‘rooms’ for music in the world.  It had become shabby.  When I was President, my team joined me in focusing on the restoration.  ‘First Monday’ concerts were the outgrowth of ad hoc faculty chamber concerts.  I decided to put some structure into it and it’s now beginning its 34th season!

SC:  Congratulations!  Jordan Hall is a majestic venue.  You’ve enjoyed a wonderful career in music from teaching to performing.  What kind of music do you like to listen to?

LL:  I can listen to anything that ‘speaks’ to me.  Any medium suits me and I don’t simply listen to pieces I have heard over and over again.

SC:  What music goals are you pursuing now?

LL:  I think it’s too late in my life to go on a completely new road, but I intend to keep pursuing excellence in what I am currently doing.

SC:  For those pursing music as a career, what was the best piece of advice you were given?

LL:  My father, who was not a musician, said you should do what you love in life.  It’s not for personal glory or ego.  Simply keep remembering that you are doing this for listeners who want something.

Attend Leonard Lesser’s 80th birthday and celebrate the music of Leonard Bernstein on Wednesday, September 26 at 7:30 p.m.  New England Conservatory will pay tribute to Leonard Bernstein’s works all season, including the New England premiere of the exhibition, Leonard Bernstein at 100, unveiling on September 24 and continuing through November 11 at NEC’s Student and Performance Center.  Click here to learn how to support NEC and here for all of NEC’s upcoming concerts this season.