Most any pop-savvy pianist will happily admit their reverence of the music Elton John has created over the past 45 years. Count Michael Cavanaugh among them.
“I’m a huge fan of Elton,” said the pianist and vocalist who will be the guest artist at this weekend’s Picnic with the Pops performances. “I’m also a huge fan of Bernie Taupin, his lyricist. The stuff they wrote was just so unique. Most of their songs, especially the ones from (John’s 1973 multi-platinum album) Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, they wrote and recorded in one day. That just blows my mind. They were all living in this mansion of a house that was turned into a big recording studio. So they’d get up in the morning, write a song, record it and that was it. That’s how songs like Bennie and the Jets and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road happened. That’s just crazy.”
Many of the songs John wrote with Taupin during the first half of the ‘70s also sport keen orchestral arrangements by Paul Buckmaster and, on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Del Newman. That makes such music a fine fit for orchestral concerts such as the Picnic with the Pops performances with the Lexington Philharmonic. But Cavanaugh isn’t limiting his touring tribute, The Songs of Elton John and More, which makes up the program for Picnic for the Pops, solely to the vanguard British rocker’s orchestral works.
“We open the show with (the 1975 single) Philadelphia Freedom because it’s got this great orchestral purpose already,” Cavanaugh said. “So obviously songs like that, songs like Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, songs like (John’s breakthrough 1970 hit) Your Song have these beautiful orchestral and string arrangements that we love playing. But then we also love doing songs like Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting, which has never seen an orchestra before but sounds really cool with one. And there’s Candle in the Wind. So many people got used to hearing just the piano/vocal version of that song. I do it with piano, voice and strings and it really sounds beautiful.”
Curiously, John wasn’t Cavanaugh’s first or most formative piano-pop inspiration. That honor goes to Billy Joel. After catching a Las Vegas performance by Cavanaugh in 2001, Joel chose his devotee to be the lead for Movin’ Out, his Broadway bound collaboration with famed choreographer Twyla Tharp. Cavanaugh remained with the production for three years, earning Grammy and Tony Award nominations.
Actual orchestral concerts, though, didn’t begin for Cavanaugh until after Movin’ Out closed. That was when he designed large scale touring tributes to Joel, John and a newer singer-songwriter program (the “… and More” qualifier in the title to this weekend’s John tribute calls for additional ‘70s-era songs by Wings, Styx and the Eagles).
“When I was on Broadway, I worked with a 10 piece rock band. It was a rock ‘n’ roll band with a horn section, basically. The first time I ever played with an actual orchestra onstage was at Carnegie Hall with the New York Pops. I guess I got spoiled.
“Growing up as an ‘80s kid, I was surrounded by synthesizers that were trying to mimic these orchestras but couldn’t do it. So suddenly to be surrounded by a real orchestra was incredible. It was like taking cotton out of my ears.
“What’s beautiful about these concerts now is we’ve got these guys coming from the rock ‘n’ roll world and symphonic musicians coming from the classical world. We’ve learned over the last eight years of doing this how to play with an orchestra and work effectively with a conductor. The more you do that, the more you feel these two different worlds coming together. There’s nothing like it.”
Picnic with the Pops: The Songs of Elton John and More featuring the Lexington Philharmonic and Michael Cavanaugh performs at 8:30 p.m. Aug. 15 and 16 at The Meadow at Greene Barn, Keeneland, 4201 Versailles Rd. Tickets are $15-$300. Call (859) 233-3535, (800) 745-3000 or go to http://lexpops.com.