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Ben Folds joined by conductor Keith Lockhart
Ben Folds joined by conductor Keith Lockhart (standing) and the rest of the Boston Pops on opening night. (Evan Richman/Globe Staff)
MUSIC REVIEW

Brawl, Ben Folds in a surreal Pops opening night

A brawl broke out in the second balcony of Symphony Hall during Wednesday night's season-opening Boston Pops concert, and no, it was not of the "Rite of Spring," shock-of-the-new variety. Apparently, one concertgoer was making too much noise and was confronted by vigilante shushes. A pair of screams pierced the medley of film music and show tunes, and a punch was thrown. After the second scream, Keith Lockhart lowered his baton and the orchestra and stunned audience fell silent. A few long moments passed, order was restored, and the Pops returned to their medley.

It was a fairly surreal moment, but truth be told, not much more surreal than the concert as a whole. I'm not a veteran Pops-goer, so I really cannot generalize from experience, but Wednesday night there were clearly two very different audiences present in Symphony Hall: the formally attired fund-raiser crowd, who repaired afterward to a gala dinner at the Fairmont Copley Plaza, and the young adoring fans of the singer-songwriter Ben Folds , who was the main attraction of the concert's second half.

Getting popular bands and indie artists to front with the orchestra (the Cowboy Junkies and M. Ward are scheduled for June) is a strategy that the Pops have turned to in recent years as they struggle to reinvent themselves while courting that holy grail demographic of 20- and 30-something listeners that orchestras everywhere hope will one day replenish classical music's aging core audience. On one level, it has worked, as the hall was packed Wednesday night with young listeners who were clearly there for Folds.

It should be said that the crowd appeared to love the show. The Folds fans got to hear their star, the orchestra under Lockhart was in fine form, and the benefit crowd seemed pleasantly amused by it all. There was even a lighthearted new film to go along with the Hub favorite "MTA" that drew a lot of laughter from the crowd.

So this is just one critic's minority opinion, but to me it didn't quite add up. I generally like Folds's music, but these arrangements of his tunes were mostly vapid and uninteresting. With a few prominent exceptions, much of the orchestra and certainly the entire string section seemed completely superfluous. For "Narcolepsy, " Folds brought out tenor Edgar Ernesto Ramirez , whose name he couldn't pronounce. It wasn't clear what the tenor was doing there anyway. It felt overall as if a Faustian bargain had been struck to get young people in the door. The lure of the Pops or the Boston Symphony Orchestra should be that they offer something different from an indie rock concert, not that they simply mimic that experience in an upscale venue with singers backed by soupy strings.

But the deal has been made, and there they were, balconies full of presumed newcomers to Symphony Hall. Given all the potential for outreach, all of those open ears, the program seemed like a bit of a golden moment squandered. In the first half, before Folds took the stage, the one "classical" work was Dvorak's "Carnival" Overture , a bright and splashy piece but hardly the kind of music that would seduce new listeners to the genre. In fact, it was difficult to imagine any of the first-half repertoire turning a Folds fan into a new BSO subscriber or even adding to the core Pops audience that might attend a program without a star he or she recognized.

What could the Pops have done differently? It's a tough call. I couldn't help but wonder, what if Lockhart had scrapped the Dvorak and replaced it with a short, gnarly, and exhilarating work of 20th-century music, offering a quick glimpse of, say, the ecstatic washes of color in Messiaen , or the quivering extraterrestrial sound worlds of a Ligeti score? Or what if the Pops had tapped one of their own violinists to give a blistering, white-hot performance of the first movement from the Sibelius Violin Concerto , with all its astonishing virtuosity and emotional intensity?

One could actually imagine an unsuspecting Folds fan walking off the street and being riveted by any of these works. Sure, some of the newcomers in the audience might tune out, but I suspect that plenty did for the first half of this program anyway. And at least there would have been a space created for an encounter with what's actually unique about this world, and some potential for genuine surprise -- beyond, that is, the eruption of fisticuffs in a balcony.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

'Related'

Boston Pops Orchestra

Keith Lockhart, conductor

With Ben Folds

At: Symphony Hall, Wednesday night

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