Classical Music

Houston Symphony Rocks Billy Joel, Elton John This Weekend

Michael Cavanaugh brings the boogie to Houston Symphony with songs by Elton John and Billy Joel.
Michael Cavanaugh brings the boogie to Houston Symphony with songs by Elton John and Billy Joel. Photo by Ken Cavanaugh; Courtesy of Cavanaugh Productions
Two of the most beloved singer-songwriters will be celebrated this weekend at the Houston Symphony with The Music of Elton John and Billy Joel, à la the Houston Symphony at Jones Hall. The beloved song repertoire will span from "Rocket Man" to "Piano Man" all thanks to the musical genius of guest performer Michael Cavanaugh.

"Doing the music of Billy Joel and Elton John is a slam dunk because you have two legends with so many amazing songs. The only problem is that it's impossible to get to all of them," Cavanaugh says.

Fear not, steadfast music lovers. While Cavanaugh might not be able to perform all the hits, there's still a good cross section that includes “Tiny Dancer,” “Uptown Girl,” “Your Song,” “New York State of Mind,” “Saturday Night’s Alright” and many more.

While Cavanaugh will be the featured guest, don't be fooled into thinking the Houston Symphony will serve as only a backdrop. The compositions have been tweaked so that the orchestra members also share in the glory.

"We are one, and that's one of the things we love about the show...the dynamic between the rock and roll musicians and these incredible, world class symphony musicians," Cavanaugh said. "The songs where utilizing the orchestra is less obvious but it's so cool are songs like 'I'm Still Standing' or 'Your Song.' You may have never heard orchestra on those songs before, so it brings them a new life. It's almost like we're putting them on steroids."

The songs are a 100 percent guaranteed good time, he said.

"These are songs that everyone can sing along to. The audience can expect for the show to be very interactive. That's what I like to be, even when I'm performing with a symphony: Interactive," he said. "Twenty years ago, I played in the piano bar. You can take me out of the piano bar, but you can't fully take the piano bar out of me. It's a lot of fun that way. I have the audience sing along on certain parts, and it's a great atmosphere."
Cavanaugh makes the ideal person to perform these hits as he was hand-picked by Joel to perform the same music in the Tony Award- and Grammy Award-nominated Movin' Out. His participation in the musical was a story written in the stars, or at least since Cavanaugh was a youngster.

"My parents bought a piano when I was seven, but it wasn't bought for me. It was bought because my mom always wanted one, and immediately I attacked the thing. I was all over it the first day. They couldn't get me off of it. I don't know how they dealt with it because I played that thing for four or five hours each day. I didn't know what I was doing. I was just making up stuff and playing by ear," he said.

Through lessons and practice, he honed his talent, and by the time he was a teenager, Cavanaugh was working as a showman at piano bars sometimes up to five nights per week — long before he could legally enter the same establishments as a patron.

In 1999, Cavanaugh received an offer that would unknowingly change his life: an opportunity to play Las Vegas at the famed New York, New York Hotel and Casino, where he worked for many years afterward. There, Joel spotted Cavanaugh and joined him on stage one fateful night in 2001.

"I was trying not to have a heart attack [when I first met Billy Joel,] but thankfully I held it together. He got on the piano across from me, and we started jamming together. Billy really liked me and we became friends. He would invite me to shows, and I would hang backstage with him," he said. "A couple months later, I found out there was a project in the works. There wasn't a name for it yet, but he was working with Twyla Tharp and they were talking about a Broadway show. They wanted a piano man for the for the Broadway show, and Billy thought I would be a great choice, and we kind of went from there."

Cavanaugh's hard work at learning piano had paid off. He took the offer and moved from New York, New York Hotel and Casino to the Big Apple, New York City, to work alongside Joel and Tharp in the fresh, new production.

The rest, as the say, is history, and Cavanaugh has been on tour since then, gifting his talents to audiences near and far. And while this weekend's show will include mostly covers, he does insert one original song.

"Billy and Elton have inspired me very much as a songwriter, and the audience will certainly hear the influence in my original song," he said.

The song's title, "Dig In," is exactly what any rock and roll lover will do this weekend when Cavanaugh takes to the keys amidst the Houston Symphony's accompaniment.

Houston Symphony's The Music of Elton John and Billy Joel starts at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana. For tickets or information, call 713-224-7575 or visit houstonsymphony.org. $39 - 145.
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Sam Byrd is a freelance contributor to the Houston Press who loves to take in all of Houston’s sights, sounds, food and fun. He also loves helping others to discover Houston’s rich culture.
Contact: Sam Byrd