Well, they can’t all be winners.
The Utah Symphony’s season opener at Abravanel Hall Friday was an unimpressive, uninspiring affair with Michael Cavananagh and his five-piece band performing the songs of Billy Joel, backed by the Utah Symphony orchestra.
While there was no fault to be found on the part of the orchestra, which played superbly under the baton of principal pops conductor Jerry Steichen, Cavanaugh and his band didn’t blend well with the orchestra. During Joel’s up-tempo numbers such as “Movin’ Out” and “Pressure,” Cavanaugh and his band were buried low in the mix, with the orchestra overwhelming Cavanugh’s clean yet largely colorless singing. There were even two guitars on stage, but they weren’t loud enough to be heard over the orchestra. Only Cavanaugh’s piano, drummer and saxophone player projected any confidence.
As a result, the songs were not elevated to a plane where music becomes truly transcendent. It was more karaoke than art.
Blame can be assigned to whomever was overseeing the sound of the show, but Cavanaugh’s pleasant yet unremarkable voice often echoed in the cavernous hall, which looked to be about half-empty. He has a fine, flexible voice, but despite being the principal singer in more than 1,200 performances of the Broadway jukebox musical “Movin’ Out,” Cavanaugh doesn’t possess the grit, the urgency, or rock ‘n’ roll voice that Joel has. With an onstage persona that too often seemed more suited to a lounge than a symphony hall, the entire evening presented Joel’s music as safe, unchallenging Muzak. Rather than the gospel spirit that propelled Joel’s “River of Dreams” on record, Friday’s arrangement seemed straight out of a Disney Channel telefilm.
The more successful moments of the evening came during the slower and softer numbers, such as “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” and “New York State of Mind,” where the orchestra’s string section warmly caressed the songs without overshadowing them. It was also a showcase for the orchestra’s horn section, which often doesn’t get to shine during masterworks.
In fact, the most entertaining parts of the show involved deviations from the Joel songbook. At one point, Cavanaugh led the crowd through Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s “Crocodile Rock,” and then asked each gender to sing the high-pitched “Lah la la la la lah” refrain; predictably, but comically, the women handled the lines much better than the men in the audience.
That was followed by the most kinetic song of the night, The Who’s “Pinball Wizard.” Tellingly, it demonstrated that Joel’s doo wop-inspired Long Island songbook hasn’t aged as well as Pete Townshend’s songs, for example.
Cavanaugh was hand-picked by Joel to sing in the Broadway show after Joel spotted him in a Las Vegas casino dueling-piano bar. Pianists who play these shows are some of the most talented musicians you’ll ever see — as evidenced locally at Keys on Main and the Tavernacle — but I would argue that Joel’s songs, presented in this fashion, do not work well when paired with a symphony orchestra.
We shall look forward to Rachmaninoff next week.
Michael Cavanaugh joins the Utah Symphony for songs of Billy Joel and more. Jerry Steichen conducts.
When • Saturday, Sept. 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