Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Billy Joel has written some of the most recognizable songs of the past forty years. While known for his piano playing, almost all of his compositions feature a wide assortment of instruments, beyond just piano, and he won a Tony for his orchestrations for Movin' Out, which featured a full orchestra. The orchestrations for this concert never distracted from the song structure of Joel's original songs, and they provided many stirring moments, including several that highlighted lush string arrangements and others that provided opportunities for the entire Phoenix Symphony to show off their skilled musicianship and versatility. Conductor Matthew Kasper did an excellent job keeping the orchestra and Cavanaugh's band in sync throughout the evening.
Cavanaugh's performance in Movin' Out earned him a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Musical and the show's cast recording received a Grammy nomination. He clearly loves performing these songs and that enthusiasm came through clearly in his connection with his band and the audience.
Many of Joel's best-known songs were performed during the concert, including "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant," which afforded the orchestra the chance to show off exceptional performances, and "Piano Man," which allowed Cavanaugh the ability to exhibit his expert harmonica playing. "She's Got a Way" featured an excellent arrangement, including moments that let the strings shine, while a pairing of "Pressure" and "Goodnight Saigon" ended with a stirring violin solo. Other highlights included a medley that featured a trio of songs from Joel's "Innocent Man" album, including "Longest Time," "Keeping the Faith," and "Tell Her About It," and the upbeat, crowd-pleasing "River of Dreams" and "Uptown Girl," as well as the moving ballad "Just the Way You Are."
While he didn't talk a lot throughout the evening, Cavanaugh did speak about how he got the attention of Joel's tour manager when he was working at the dueling piano bar at the New York, New York casino in Las Vegas. It was there where he first met Joel in an evening that paved the way for being offered the starring role in Movin' Out. That night also included the two of them playing the two pianos in the bar facing each other. Cavanaugh said that Joel put in a request to hear a song that evening, as many people at dueling piano bars do, and in Phoenix, Cavanaugh delivered a superb rendition of the song Joel requested, "Great Balls of Fire." He also played two Elton John songs, "Crocodile Rock" and "Pinball Wizard," as a preview of his Elton John concert he also performs with symphonies. He also delivered his original tune "Dig In" and played guitar on a smashing rendition of "Johnny B Goode."
Cavanaugh has been performing with a quintet of skilled musicians for many years now, including drummer Johnny Fedevich, guitarist Giovanni Mastro, saxophonist John Scarpulla, bassist Billy V, and Jamie Hosmer on keyboard. While all played exceptionally well at the concert, many of Joel's songs feature saxophone solos and Scarpulla delivered an endless number of solo sax moments that received loud applause throughout the evening. His solo sections in "New York State of Mind" were superb.
Joel's 1993 "River of Dreams" album was his last recording that featured new songs. However, in 2001 he turned his attention to writing classical music and in the recent concert the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra delivered two of those classical compositions under Kasper's expert direction, including the hypnotic "Waltz No. 1 (Nunley's Carousel)" and the moving piece "Air (Dublinesque)." In Kasper's introduction to the second piece he jokingly said it was written by "that classical composer William Joel."
The Music of Billy Joel starring Michael Cavanaugh with the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra was presented September 27-18, 2019, at Symphony Hall, Phoenix AZ. Information for upcoming Phoenix Symphony concerts can be found at www.phoenixsymphony.org. Information on Michael Cavanaugh's upcoming tour dates can be found at www.michaelcavanaugh.com.