"It is a little unusual to start the season with a pops concert," said Toby Tolokan, vice president of symphony artistic planning for the orchestra.
Added Jerry Steichen, principle pops conductor, who will conduct the season-opener: "It's always fun to switch things up."
Songs on the set list include "Piano Man, "Uptown Girl," "Just the Way You Are," and "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant," performed by musician Michael Cavanaugh, who was hand-picked by Joel to star in the Broadway musical "Movin' Out," featuring Joel's music and Twyla Tharp's choreography. That's in contrast to last season's opening-night concert of John Adams' sobering "On the Transmigration of Souls," an homage to the victims of the 9/11 attacks, and Beethoven's glorious Ninth Symphony.
Fischer's European schedule won't allow him to be back to town to conduct until the weekend of Sept. 14, said Melia Tourangeau, president and CEO of Utah Symphony | Utah Opera. It's "a little unusual" to open the season with a pops concert, she acknowledged.
But according to Tolokan, audiences will be blown away by Cavanaugh, who, after leaving the opening run of the musical in 2005, began performing Joel's songs and other rock hits backed by symphony orchestras all over the country. It was during Tolokan's stint at the Indianapolis Symphony when Cavanaugh debuted this show.
Since Cavanaugh started performing Joel's songs with orchestras, he has debuted one show focused on the songs of the other great piano man, Elton John, and another focusing on songs by Paul Simon, James Taylor and Neil Diamond. Since this is Cavanaugh's first show in Utah, he says he's happy to be performing the songs from Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind."
"He was definitely a musical hero, especially when I started to play the piano at 7," the singer said from his Las Vegas home. "I was a big fan. Still am."
In 1999, Cavanaugh was playing the piano and singing at Las Vegas' New York-New York Hotel & Casino. One evening in early 2001, Joel happened to stop in and catch Cavanaugh serenading the crowd in the dueling-piano bar. Impressed, Joel sat in and played a Jerry Lee Lewis song with Cavanaugh.
After the gig, Joel invited Cavanaugh to move to New York City to work with him and Tharp, who were writing "Movin' Out." When the musical opened, Cavanaugh sang the songs backed by a 10-piece band.
In 2005, Cavanaugh began taking his symphony show across America. "When we do our shows, people are not expecting what we do," he said. Season-ticket subscribers might not initially appreciate what he does, but often can be won over. "Pretty much all the time, people are roaring, on their feet."
Cavanaugh realized the classical world was new to him after all, he is a Katy Perry fan. "I'm a fan of classical music," he said, "but it's not my home." The orchestras he performs with "blow me away."
He has a willing partner in Steichen, who is entering his fourth season as the Utah Symphony's principal pops conductor. Steichen is the kind of music lover who, when asked if he is familiar with Joel's music, starts singing "Only the Good Die Young."
Need more evidence? This past summer, Steichen was visiting a friend in a Vermont restaurant on what happened to be the friend's birthday. Steichen is also the kind of guy who, when he spotted a piano in the eatery, attacked the piano with purpose to lead a rousing sing-along of "Happy Birthday." Restaurant patrons were so enthused, they started calling out requests to Steichen, who happily obliged. One of the songs he played was, fittingly enough, Joel's signature song, "Piano Man." Steichen didn't need sheet music. He knew loved the song.
Even though it's unorthodox for a pops concert to open a season, Steichen said the versatile Utah Symphony is up to the challenge. "You're not going to play Brahms' Second Symphony the same way you play 'Piano Man,' " he said.
So, this coming Saturday night, somewhere around 9 o'clock, the regular crowd will have shuffled into Abravanel Hall, planning on making love to a tonic and gin.
At that point, no one will be asking Cavanaugh, "Man, what are you doin' here?"
It's a pops concert, and everyone will be feeling all right.
Rachmaninoff can wait until next week.
Sing us a song
Michael Cavanaugh joins the Utah Symphony for songs of Billy Joel and more. Jerry Steichen conducts.
When • Friday and Saturday, Sept. 7-8, at 8 p.m.
Where • Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $29 to $85 ($5 more on concert day), 801-355-ARTS, Abravanel Hall ticket office or www.utahsymphony.org.