“He said, ‘Hi. I’m Bill. Relax…’ and we walked into the hall and were already joking with each other. It was great. He had tons of questions because he’d never been to a dueling piano bar. He’s that famous.” -Michael Cavanaugh describing his whimsical discovery story; the night he met Billy Joel and his famed association with the American pop rock icon’s lexicon of songs began. On March 25 at the Holland Center, Cavanaugh’s set was glittering with gems like this one. In anecdote, interpretation, and song he channeled Billy Joel with a dazzling effortlessness. The Omaha Symphony was a natural collaboration for the grandiose scope of Joel’s songwriting.
The orchestra arrangements were thrilling. When Cavanaugh and the Symphony performed “The Longest Time,” the addition of pizzicato throughout turned the already charming love song, into a Tiffany-window-worthy jewel. During “She’s Got a Way,” if I had closed my eyes, I would have thought Billy Joel was in the room. “Goodnight Saigon” was positively wild; So timely for a season when the realities of war are being germinated once again into our zeitgeist. Cavanaugh’s poetic and sincere interpretation alongside the positively cinematic orchestra was spectacular.
Ernest Richardson, Resident and Principal Pops Conductor, introduced 2 orchestral arrangements from Joel’s 2001 “Fantasies and Delusions.” He explained that the piece was originally written by, the classically trained, Joel as a piano solo, but had been arranged for orchestra. The presentation was exquisite. The ensemble simultaneously made me hear the action of the piano and forget the piece was meant for piano at all.
Alan Snow served as concertmaster for the evening. The strings were, as usual, remarkable, but their seamless cooperation with an outstanding combo was extraordinary: Billy Venditti – Bass, Johnny Fedevich – Percussion, Jamie Hosmer – Keyboards, John Scarpulla – Saxophone/hand percussion, Jim Guthrie – Guitar, and Kenneth Cino – Guitar. The entire ensemble, despite having only played together for a matter of, less than days, transported me inside every Billy Joel music video ever made… plus a few that haven’t even been produced.
Cavanaugh’s relationship with these songs permeates his influence. The stories he relayed about the repertoire were as tangible as an adolescent scrapbook. He wistfully reminded the audience with Joel’s performance on the post 9/11 telethon before he delivered a stirring rendition of “New York State of Mind.” During “Tell Her About It,” a dozen couples in the inner balcony, took to dancing in the aisles. The combo spotlessly became a men’s chorus with Cavanaugh for “Uptown Girl.”
Cavanaugh took care to pay tribute to Joel’s influences as well, peppering in “Great Balls of Fire” by Little Richard and “Johnny Be Good” by Chuck Berry. It was also delightful to hear Cavanaugh’s own song, “Dig In,” which he delivered with a deeply refreshing joy, alongside his playful jokes about the band’s merchandise and marketing.
I can’t wait for Cavanaugh to return to Omaha. The rest of the audience agreed, standing for most of the last 10 minutes of the concert to dance, cheer, sing, and applaud.
I grew up in church music and musical theatre. From my collegiate career and beyond I've traveled through opera, the symphony, the theatre and worship as a student, a performer, an entrepreneur, and a journalistic correspondent. I'm thrilled to have an opportunity to share with you some of the incredible and fascinating endeavors I continue to undertake in music and the arts. I don't need you to see the world the way I do, but I'll do everything I can to help you enjoy it as much as I have.